Innerviews, music without borders

Asaf Sirkis
Being Is Believing
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

Taking the road less traveled isn't a recent decision for gifted drummer and composer Asaf Sirkis. Rather, it's a philosophy that's been fundamental to his existence as long as he can remember. It's served as the basis for the Britain-based Israeli musician’s inventive and diverse output, most notably 2008’s The Monk and 2007’s The Song Within.

The Monk features his trio including guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos and bassist Yaron Stavi, along with keyboardist Gary Husband guesting on four tracks. The record strikes a unique balance between the fiery, propulsive tendencies of the classic ‘70s fusion era and a deep, meditative and even ethereal approach. The Song Within, recorded with Sirkis’ earlier group Inner Noise, including church organist/keyboardist Steve Lodder and guitarist Mike Outram, is equally compelling. In addition to drawing from Sirkis’ jazz-rock influences, the album is inspired by the work of composers and organists Maurice Duruflé and Oliver Messiaen, lending several pieces a regal flair and gravitas.

Another recent Sirkis release of note is 2009’s Elementary Dialogues, a download-only duo effort with longtime friend and guitarist Eyal Maoz. It captures the musicians in a free-flow of kinetic energy that uses their compositions as a springboard for spirited improvisation.  

Outside of his rich career as a band leader, Sirkis also works with saxophonist Tim Garland and the Larry Coryell Power Trio with bassist Jeff Berlin. Other notable collaborations have included projects with Gilad Atzmon, Mark Egan, Dave Liebman, David Binney, and Kenny Wheeler. 

As with his music, Sirkis is highly focused and intriguing in conversation. His thought-provoking lessons on creativity and artistic intent are sure to resonate with artists across virtually any discipline.

Joe Zawinul said great jazz is always about storytelling. What story are you relaying on The Monk?

Well first, the name tells a story in itself. Music for me is a kind of religion and as one who practices it, I sometimes feel like I’m doing the work of a monk. Practicing the drums is meditation and discipline. Writing music is about letting go and letting the inexpressible express itself. It’s also about dedication and devotion. You give everything you have to it and the funny thing is that when music takes you over—when there is music and nothing else—there is no story and there is no you. The “story” in that sense for me serves as a mere signpost or an invitation if you like. For example, you might read about a musician and become interested in listening to their music because of something in his/her background or you might be interested because of their musical collaborations, but these are all peripheral. The essence of music is magic and magic itself does not tell a story, it is timeless. When there’s magic, there’s no need for signposts anymore. Some of us need less or more signposts, but really they are directing us to the same pathless land.

Describe the creative process behind The Monk.

I wrote the music for both The Monk and my previous album, The Song Within, over a relatively short period of six-to-seven months during which I wasn’t able to play the drums much due to a repetitive strain injury. It was a challenging time for me. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to play the drums again. But through that and other things that happened around that time in my life, I felt that something opened up for me. There was a sense of freedom. It’s strange how a sense of freedom comes when things are taken away from you. The music of The Monk was born out of that.

With The Monk, I felt the need to explore a different-sounding band. My previous band Inner Noise, which I still perform with, consisted of drums, Mike Outram on guitar and Steve Lodder on church organ. We created a very specific sound. With the new trio, the combination of Tassos Spiliotopoulos on electric guitar, Yaron Stavi on electric bass, and drums creates a familiar sound for me—a sound that I grew up with during my early development as a musician. So, I was naturally going there in my head. I was hearing the electric bass and the electric guitar as if they were a single instrument.

You’ve said that music starts when ideas finish. Elaborate on that for me.

Ideas and concepts make life complicated, limited and difficult for us. If you really look at things closely, you see that ideas are in fact quite elusive and temporary as they are an approximation or a model of reality. Even a great vision is still not reality. If and when it becomes reality, it will inevitably become something else and sometimes even the exact opposite of the vision itself. No idea or concept will satisfy you for a long time. But what I’m really saying is actually simple: music is beyond ideas, concepts and time for me. You can try to understand music or conceptualize on it from the outside, but you will then essentially lose the magic of it by doing so. Composing music is like going fishing, you never know what you’re going to get and how long it’s going to take. You just sit there, waiting ‘til you catch something. That’s exactly what I’m doing when I’m composing—just sitting there, improvising ‘til something comes out. And it always comes out from the space between the concepts. I’m not saying that ideas, concepts and visions aren’t good things to have. You need them to be able to learn to play your instrument, but I believe that the plan is there for you so you can deviate from it.

What tend to be the biggest challenges you face in your creative process and how do you overcome them?

Not trying is the biggest challenge and yet I can’t really try not to try, can I? So it’s not about overcoming so much as it is about allowing—I guess that might be the closest word. As a professional musician and a band leader, I often face situations of stress in which it’s hard to let go. Perhaps when I’m playing with my band at a high-profile festival gig or just trying to co-ordinate many logistic-related things, the stress factor can take away from your creative energy at times. That’s a real challenge. 

On the more technical side of things, there’s also recognizing your weak points and being able to face up to them and work on them. These I find are often related to issues of making yourself clear and of communication with the other people in the room, whether it’s the band members or people who come to listen to you. On the other hand, there’s also being able to work with what you have. Everybody has things they are good at, along with weak areas. This is what makes each of us special. The trick is to organically combine these elements together in a way so they complement each other and become beneficial to the music. Then what has been previously a weak point might lead you into something very personal and original.

What do you find most gratifying about the creative process?

When I feel I have clearly captured and delivered some emotional content in my playing or composition. The feeling of “something is being said here” and especially when the “said” things are what I cannot express in words, is the most satisfying. Playing gigs with my band, especially when I feel we play well together and when people enjoy what we are trying to do, is also very gratifying.

What evolution as a composer and drummer do you feel The Monk showcases?

As I touched on earlier, playing in an electric guitar/bass/drums trio brought me back to the sound of when I started to play music. In that sense, I am getting closer to “the sound of who I am.” You might think there is a contradiction there, but actually I found that coming back to who you really are is the greatest evolution you can ever have. In a sense, it’s coming back to what you already know or to your roots if you like. Once you do, there is more peace in the music and through that, many great developments can evolve. Another great thing about the new trio is that we get to play a lot together so there’s a chance to explore and develop the music. We are constantly developing our sound as a band and each of us individually.

You have a recent digital release with Eyal Maoz titled Elementary Dialogues. Tell me what makes this collaboration special for you.

Eyal and I share a very similar background. We grew up in the town of Rehovot in Israel; we studied at the same elementary school—hence the name Elementary Dialogues—and high school. We became friends long before any of us played any musical instruments. I have some really funny recordings of us two from the late ‘70s doing Beatles covers with me playing a biscuit box and Eyal singing! There was always something that connected us as human beings and in music, even though Eyal and I play different styles of music. It was good fun recording Elementary Dialogues. It felt relaxed and natural, like coming home. We are both very happy with that album. It celebrates something special for us. It’s a shame that we live so far from each other, with Eyal in New York and me in London, but whenever we get a chance to play it’s always great!

What are your thoughts about releasing digital-only music, given that jazz listeners tend to be more attached to physical media than others?

The industry is changing rapidly and it’s still hard to determine where it’s all going at this point. The good thing about the CD product is that it provides a solid identity, an image of the artist and his/her work—an image that really helps people to get into what he/she is trying to do. It also helps the artist himself with a sense of “done that, now let’s move on.” Without the CD product, you don’t have that so much, but instead, you have an immediacy. In the web universe, you can write a piece, rehearse it, play it on a gig, video it from your mobile phone, and the next day it’s all there on YouTube. You can also record a gig and make it available for streaming or download. So there are different benefits to each of these product concepts. The good thing about jazz at the moment is that we are able to enjoy it both ways, but the future is unclear. Things are changing rapidly and I reckon things will change even quicker soon. One other good thing about the new industry is that the artist is more independent, although it requires more effort in terms of getting gigs, designing album covers, selling music on the Internet, and advertising. Overall, it provides the artist with more artistic freedom which I find very exciting. 

How did your collaboration with Larry Coryell and Jeff Berlin come about?

I first met Larry in Israel when I was playing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in 1998. I was still living there back then, but it wasn’t until 2006 when I got a call from him to do a tour with his trio, also sometimes featuring Mark Egan on bass, in France and Germany. I’ll never forget when he called me and asked ‘‘Did you study with Bob Moses?’’ I said “yes” because I did study with Bob when he came to Israel in the early ‘90s. Then Larry said “Okay, you got the gig!” It was a really wonderful experience playing with him for the first time, I was quite nervous to be honest. I saw Larry play in Israel in 1985 with his trio featuring Bob Moses on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass. It was really memorable. When I was in my teens, I used to listen a lot to his Spaces album and the Eleventh House band. When Jeff Berlin came into the picture in 2008, it was really great. Jeff appears on some of my favorite recordings ever, including Bill Bruford’s One of A Kind and Allan Holdsworth’s Road Games, which was actually one of the first jazz albums I got into. I made a recording with Larry and Jeff for NDR radio in Germany some time ago. Larry was thinking of releasing it as an album. That might take a while though.

When discussing your philosophy as a musician, you’ve said “I’m not trying to be something. I’m just trying to be.” Elaborate on that.

I have always felt that when being is experienced in the act of playing or composing, great music can come about, although being is not experienced by a “self” or by a “you.” It can come about when you allow it to happen, but it doesn’t always work when you’re trying. When you’re trying, you’re introducing a “self” or a “me” into an idea and this is when things become complicated and reduced. Being is simple, childlike and free. It’s the closest and most intimate state of being available for all. Like many who have experienced this in their early development as musicians and human beings, I feel a longing to come back to being.

Provide some insight into your upcoming album.

I’m currently writing some new music for a second trio album to be launched at the end of 2010. We are experimenting at the moment with some of the new music on gigs and I hope to record in March. I feel that the new music is influenced more by my background. A lot of the culture in Israel is influenced by Russian folk music and that’s creeping into my writing at the moment. The new music is generally more melodic and it’s also built to fit the different personalities in the trio featuring Tassos and Yaron to hopefully create a more homogenous and organic sound. 

The outspoken Israeli singer Noa told me “living in Israel is like playing Russian Roulette” and that it creates a “live in the moment” viewpoint that manifests itself in Israeli artistic expression. Describe your take on that and how that reality may have affected your creative instincts.

When I lived in Israel I used to play with a great clarinet player/composer named Harold Rubin. Harold used to say “Play as if this is your last time you ever play!” or “Don’t tell me it’s not your day.” I have always remembered and cherished that. Yes, the difficulty, the danger evokes some amazing things. When you are put in a dangerous situation, there is no time for messing about. You really act who you are and you are in the moment. You’ve got to be.

I think a lot of Israelis have been inspired by that state of mind and although many of the Israeli musicians at the time I was living there did not have the skills and facility that you would hear in Europe or America, they always had something to say, they always played with passion and 110 percent commitment to the music and group they were playing in. Music was non-linguistically expressive, raw, true, and meaningful.

You did your compulsory Israeli army stint in the late ‘80s. Was there a musical component to your service?

In Israel, when you’re 18, you have to join the army right after you finish school. I tried to get into the army band but it didn’t work out, so I wasn’t playing too much, although I did manage to get out every once in a while and play gigs. I had an administrative job in an air force base near my hometown. When there wasn’t work to do in the office, I used to practice on a practice pad. I actually got quite a lot of practice then. On the whole, my time in the army from ’87 to ‘90 wasn’t a great experience for me, but it did make me more focused on what I wanted to do—play creative music and be in a place where that music would be appreciated. It took me a bit of time, but I feel I had to go through all that I had to go through.

How did moving to the U.K. in 1999 influence your creative mindset?

The U.K. has changed a whole lot for me. It is only in the U.K. where I feel I actually started something. For the first time, I was touring, playing lots and lots of musically-interesting gigs, just as I always dreamed about. These were all real gigs, not just “money gigs.” You see, in Israel I had to play lots of Jewish weddings and other functional gigs to earn a living with the occasional gig that I really enjoyed, usually for no or almost no money at all. I came to the U.K. and soon realized that it is possible to earn a living doing what you actually want to do. Not only are you making a living, but you’re learning so much on the road playing these kinds of gigs and meeting lots of inspiring musicians like Tim Garland, Gilad Atzmon, Larry Coryell, and many more. You get better at what you’re doing and you really learn how to channel your skills. That’s the best practice. 

In Israel, it’s sometimes considered highly controversial when artists make political statements. My understanding is many feel artists should simply entertain and keep their mouths shut when it comes to politics. What are your reflections on this?

There are some Israeli artists who chose a political route. The controversy depends on what they’re trying to say. There is a great deal of social criticism and political satire in Israel. After all, in many ways life is not easy down there and people do express that in different ways. But having said that, in Israeli/Jewish culture, you can be a lefty, right wing, orthodox, or whatever you like, but there are a few things that you’re not supposed to question, so to speak, and that could make things difficult for people like Gilad Atzmon with whom I worked. Gilad, who is very outspoken about his pro-Palestinian views, had to deal with situations when at his gigs members of the audience—mostly Jewish/Israeli, of course—left the hall because of something he said. As far as I know he is in constant debate with different Jewish lobbies.

With politicians and some people who are very politically oriented, I have seen compassion turning into righteousness and righteousness into anger. When righteousness, anger and a dense sense of identity feeds more and more conflict, it is not relevant anymore who is right and who is wrong. You cannot enforce morals or humanistic behavior on people that are not ready for it. It has never worked. So what do you do now? Create peace with more fear and anger? Sing a song?

Personally and for other Israeli musician friends, music has been a great escape from that dense mindset and that might be one of the reasons why you might not get so many politically-oriented artists in my opinion.

You’ve said you don’t believe music can create significant social change, but it can reinforce change already in motion. Tell me more about that perspective.

Music can inspire people. Inspiration comes from the timeless magic within music. If you’re open to music, it can make miracles happen for you, but I’m always very suspicious about putting music in the service of social/political or politically-correct interests, especially when it comes from politicians. Change happens for those who seek and are ready for it. 

Asaf Sirkis