This interview with Mat Maneri was conducted over the phone to gather information for a feature article written for Copper Press. ECM had just released Trinity, Mat's first solo project on violin and viola. Shortly after, he returned to the studio with Randy Peterson and Ed Schuller to record For Consquence for Leo Records. I found Mat to be an incredibly friendly guy with a smooth, dry sense of humor. While the interview runs long, I've omitted any glaring redundancies. Enjoy.
Alan Jones: The year is 1969. The civil rights movement is at its peak.
Mat Maneri: A man walks on the moon. And I was born. In Brooklyn, NY. Shortly afterwards, my father got an appointment to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music. So we moved to Boston. I grew up mostly around the Boston area, in my formative years. I spent every summer in New York. I lived a dual life.
AJ: What kind of music were you listening to back then, during your “formative years”?
MM: I remember going to see Black Flag, stuff like that. I remember also listening to Mahler and getting into a lot of ridiculous techno-kind of stuff. I probably listened the least to jazz in that time period, as a young teenager. But, it was the only thing that I felt was interesting to perform. But I never bought jazz records or did any jazz fan kind of thing. I was always listening to something ridiculous or unrelated at all. But as a performer I always was drawn to the improvisation and studying technique. These things made the most sense to me as a performer.
AJ: When did you start performing?
MM: Professionally, around fifteen.
AJ: You started playing the violin when?
MM: I was five. You know, like any youngster I couldn’t stand it. Well, like most youngsters I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to practice.
AJ: Whose decision was this, Mom’s or Dad’s?
MM: I’m not quite sure. I think that it was the both of them. My father was pretty strict at the time, which is hard to believe because he is so loose nowadays. But I think at that time that he was giving me what he was fighting for and couldn’t get. His parents were Italian immigrants who said, “You don’t want to do that. You want to get a real job and trade. Don’t you dare start playing music. Don’t you dare study or practice or perform.” Of course he rebelled and became a musician. And for me, you know, I was being told that I should learn an instrument and practice and take lessons. So I rebelled but couldn’t do much about it. But then when I was about thirteen I quit for a year and got really into painting. After almost a year I started really physically missing it: music. But not so much the music that I had to train to do, which was classical. Although I enjoyed listening to certain modern classical concerts, things like that. I really started missing just the physical aspect of playing.
AJ: So you cut your teeth on classical music.
MM: Yeah. There are probably a million ways to study violin, but in America or Western Europe pretty much the only way to really gain a technique is through classical studies. There’s no jazz program for jazz violinist [laughs]. You know what I mean? There’s no other way around it.
AJ: Maybe one day.
MM: Perhaps. But I think that the same technical aspects will be there, generally. What might be added is jazz repertoire, or learning how to improvise. But see I had that. My father gave that to me in addition to what I was studying with teachers. My dad has played jazz all of his life. He started out playing in big bands.
AJ: When you first started playing and gaining your interest in jazz music, was that exclusively due to your father’s influence? Or did you just find yourself thumbing through jazz records?
MM: I never listened to jazz records.
MM: My father had like one record. And it was unopened (laughs). It was Ornette. It just said “Ornette” on the cover.
AJ: You should have opened that one!
MM: Well, he never did, you know? Because he was a player. And I understand his motives. As a player he was just never interested in other people’s playing. And I think that that is what I picked up most from him: his individuality. Like, you know about jazz, he did gigs, he played all this stupid stuff like weddings, this and that and other stuff. But I don’t think he was so much interested in the jazz history, despite the fact that you just kind of know it by osmosis after while, by certain gigs or just seeing people play. Or you go over to a friend’s house and hear records or something. But it was never about buying this or that record and studying it and enjoying it. He wanted to play. He wanted to create. Later on I started exploring, but my attitude was that I wanted to just create as well. He was a big influence on me.
AJ: Did you ever feel like you were restricted in the sense of performance? Did you ever find yourself looking ahead and thinking, “Wow, this is going to be hard.”
MM: No. But what I did feel was a big animosity toward having to prove myself early on to other people. People that I was gigging with and people who saw me, other musicians. First of all I was playing an instrument that, in jazz, is not too common unless you are playing this kind of sugary, old-style music. That’s one. Two: when I started playing improvisation music I started playing straight off with pretty modern stuff because that was what I liked, mostly because that is where my ear gravitated to. Even with rock music, I couldn’t stand the normal pop music. Punk or similar music, or rap, where there can be like a collage of sound, these things appealed to me because they were a little more sonically complex. So early on I had this big pressure, like, “Oh, you can’t play the violin.” You have to imagine that this was the mid-80’s. It was very conservative, suddenly. Wynton was coming up really strong. When I first started out I could swing decently, but I wasn’t great at it or anything. But then it gave me—all that negative response—gave me the motivation to learn it, which I did. I also figured that the only way to learn this stuff was to play with as many groups as possible. I’d recommend that to any young musician. I learned everything. I’ve played with rock bands, funk bands, swings bands, Indian fusion bands. I decided to really get a grasp on what it is to be a pro. And even then I would do my own concerts and go back to the modern stuff and then still get the same negative response. But I felt more secure about it. Because as a teenager you are very insecure. And when you are doing something new, one, you have a chip on a shoulder. Two, you’re insecure thinking that maybe they are right, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, deep down. So I took it upon myself to try to know what I was talking about. I think a lot of musicians would benefit from that.
When jazz was an actual industry, people played six nights a week. They worked with many different people and would learn on the stage. You would learn from people that are way better than you. Most young jazz musicians or improvisers do not have that kind of situation, because there is very little work. And when there is, you don’t get an opportunity to play with some of the more experienced players.
You have to be motivated to do anything in this business. If you’re not you’re not, and that’s okay. It can be a nice hobby [laughs]. I have known a lot of players, really great players that just weren’t motivated to really push themselves to the limit. They’re still great players and they enjoy themselves.
Rebellion equals fuel equals motivation….it’s true in a lot of ways. The 80’s were a good time to be rebellious, because, well, that time forced you to be motivated.
AJ: It seems that you were an intuitive kid. You’ve had your ideas in order for what sounds like a long time. When was the point where your playing and your ideas were such that you said to yourself, “This. This is the direction in which I would like to travel.”?
MM: Well, I’ve changed direction over the years. Somewhat. But it’s so…subtle. But from day one it was like, “This is what I want to do.” I knew immediately, playing free stuff and with my father, and hearing some of his old tapes from the 60’s, that this is really exciting. This combines the elements of world music, the worlds of jazz, swing, funk. This combines the elements of James Brown and rock and roll. I was brought up on a lot of different kinds of music. And jazz has always been influenced by pop culture and vice versa.
AJ: You can hear it now in bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood.
MM: And they make it wonderfully obvious. When I’m playing with Randy Peterson, in a duet, and we get into this low vamp and I’ll tend to think of Hendrix or something like that, that has happened before me. It’s all influence to me. When I’m a sideman with a certain group, I try to adapt to the style of the group. I try very hard to adapt with what they are looking for. You don’t want to come in, just do your own shit and that’s that. I really want them to be happy with the finished product. But I always bring my voice to the table. But I do adapt for them stylistically.
Now when I’m doing own style, what I try to bring to that table, is everything I’ve learned and everything I am interested in. Which is about as all-encompassing as I can be. I try to check out everything and I try to be influenced by everything from Hungarian folk tunes to West African music to Bach to Elliot Carter to Public Enemy to Busta Rhymes to Nirvana to whatever. Everything I’ve enjoyed over my short 31 years of living. But then, what I want to do, what I really strive to do, is bring it into a place where you don’t hear any of that directly…where you don’t hear cliches off of those styles. Like, Indian music has greatly influenced me, classical Indian music. I do use some of those feelings or figures that I have studied, but I don’t want it to sound Indian. I’m not a big fan of groups where you can, say, hear them playing a little Jewish melody, and it sounds ridiculously out of place in context. You know what I’m saying?
I want to play these melodies in my way, where it’s not disguised but it’s melded so seamlessly with everything I am playing so that it becomes its own thing. You have to abandon these cliches and get rid of these tendencies to let your fingers follow what they know; but to really be true to yourself and hope that you are strong enough to contain those things and meld them in such a way so that you come out.
AJ: You have many different influences, and not only do you like to recognize those influences, but you want to incorporate them into your music without being schmaltzy, like a cute little quote.
AJ: How do you go about doing that? I mean, it’s really hard to recognize.
MM: It is extremely hard, perhaps the hardest part of the process. I don’t think when I started out that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, aside from all the usual egomaniac things that a young person wants to do. But only in the past five years or so did I start to recognize that this was what I was doing. And it started out by listening to my father, who is not only a jazz player or a composer of twelve tone and then on to microtonal music, and not only a phenomenal Greek clarinetist—he used to play in the Greek circles in New York and at weddings and stuff—well, I was really listening to what he was doing in his free playing, and I heard a little Greek come out, but not really. And I thought, “That’s why his phrasing is so unique. He’s using that phrasing but in such a different way. And he’s made it such a part of himself with the twelve tone thing…Oh WOW!” And it started to dawn on me. He’s really playing world music! But it’s not corny. It’s not like playing jazz or swing and then applying a little bit of Eastern European melody on top…and then we’re going to go into a punk little thing…you know.
AJ: Like, “Let’s insert ‘Pop, Goes the Weasel’ here, on purpose.”
MM: Yeah, to me there’s really no point in it. I wouldn’t say that I hate it. It just doesn’t hold an interest for me. What holds an interest for me, my favorite thing, the things I like to listen to are usually very true to themselves. Like when I listen to Indian classical music, I like to listen to real masters that really do it their own way. And it is so beautiful from moment one to the last second. And what makes that beautiful is that they always play with form: whether it is choppy form, or really fluid form or a classical recapitulation of this or that. There is a purpose to it and, before the first note hits to after the last note ends, you feel like it’s all inclusive to the piece, like every note is needed. And that means you have to take what you’re doing and really be specific. Right from the first note you play, rhythmically you are setting up everything…the melody…you are setting up everything for the whole piece. And you could play anything from there, but I feel the real purpose is to edit out a lot of the garbage and get to the root of what the piece is going to be. I love playing with form. To really play form, and to make a composition on the spot, you can’t play clichés. If you were writing a classical piece, and if you were suddenly to throw in, like, The National Anthem for a second, and then something else—yeah, it’s a clever idea—but the structure of the whole piece…is it relevant? Perhaps, if you’re smart enough to make it work. But I want it to really work, to be so important to the piece that there is no denying that you’re making a composition reflecting a style.
AJ: What about David Bowie?
MM: I like Bowie. Actually, I hardly ever talk about this, but when I was younger I bought every one of his records. I was a big fan of Bowie’s and always wanted to meet him. Never did. But recently I got to play with Reeves Gabrels and I got to talk with him about Bowie. But now I’ve gotten too far away from that.
AJ: He [Gabrels] was in a really cool local band in Boston.
MM: The Bentmen?
AJ: Yeah, the Bentmen! Anyway, Bowie blatantly quotes The Beatles in “Young Americans.” That’s appropriate, right?
MM: It is appropriate, yes. And there will always be occasions where it is appropriate.
AJ: With the Bowie song, we’re talking about a story, one that is being told in plain English. The quote is very coherent. The contrast in your music is that to the average listener is that it is going to be very incoherent.
MM: Well, obviously I quote things as well, musical quotes. It’s not that I am trying to disguise it, or even stealing it. But I want it to have such a relevant purpose. So perhaps…actually, I’ve slipped. Like on my new solo record coming out I did a little Elliot Carter thing that’s like a direct ripoff from his string quartet number one, just for like 5 seconds within my piece. But it’s so seamless that it didn’t bother me. Because the piece had that element to it.
AJ: So you were thinking of and were inspired by Elliot as you were playing the piece.
MM: I was. Actually I wrote the piece almost as a tribute to his writing. So for me it was very appropriate and it was such a subtle quote. When I say quote, I mean more cliched, when it sounds cliched. If you can imagine listening to “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane playing along and 15 minutes into it and suddenly he quotes a Mozart piece for fun.
AJ: I don’t know how I’d feel about that.
MM: How would it make you feel?
MM: It would have to be so spectacularly seamless with what the whole purpose of what that piece was. And it’s so hard to do. And I think that if you can do it, great. But that means taking the clichés out of it and making it your own. This is my initial point. I do want these elements in my music, but you have to make it your own. It has to be so purposeful to what you are doing. The mission I am on is to incorporate all of these things, all the time, and hopefully with the feeling of my kind of compositional ideas. To have those elements so intermingled with one another that it doesn’t sound like any one of those things.
AJ: Tell me about your current projects. What are you working on right now?
MM: I’m developing a new trio record. You know, I did the trio with Randy Peterson and Ed Schuller. I’ve done two records with them, Fever Bed and Fifty One Sorrows. And now I’m working on what I think is the last one for a while. It’s to complete a trilogy. I really feel like this new one is taking the elements from the first two records and taking it as far as I can go right now with the ideas, the writing style and the style of the group. I’m going to be recording that (I think) on March 1st, called For Consequence.
AJ: Will this also be on Leo?
MM: I think so. The first two are on Leo, and Leo is pretty excited about it. He’s really into it and those first two records are starting to gain momentum, even though they are both rather old. Each one has been about two or three years apart. For me, it’s as close to my personal writing style in jazz, those records. This third one will hopefully culminate into what I really want it to be.
AJ: Fifty One Sorrows is the one with your wife on the cover, correct?
MM: Yes. That record definitely took Fever Bed a few steps further. Fever Bed was my first record as a leader, I think. I was very happy with it. Then with Fifty One Sorrows I really kind of tightened up the ideas and felt great about it. I still feel great about it. It’s one of my favorite records. Now with this new one I’m working on, I’m really trying to take it as far as I can go. And I’m thinking of it as a trilogy. I think that this third record will not end what I’m doing, but end a certain period, where I have taken it to a certain level where it will have to move on, probably to something somewhat different. Maybe new personnel, or making a large group or smaller group.
AJ: With your compositions, does it depend on the context of the setting as much as with the players with you are playing?
MM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
AJ: How do you go about composing?
MM: Well, it depends on the group. For instance, with this trio, with the first record, I wrote very specific heads, very jazz-oriented. This is where I was at the time. One tune was in ¾, one tune was in 7/4, one was in 4/4, one was fast…you know, that kind of thing. They were mostly based off the twelve tone rows on the first record. Then on the second record, it had that same element, but I started loosening up certain tunes. One tune was like not exactly in any particular time signature, but it was a certain pulse we counted. It could be 5/4, ¾, whatever. The melody wasn’t based on the rows, it was starting to loosen up for me. And other tunes were more strict, like in 12/8.
Now my writing style has gotten very fragmented. With this new record that I am working on—I’m still writing the material as we speak—I’ve gone half way through and it’s using all of those elements, but some of it is very loose and free. And some of it is very strict. But the strictness of it, I don't want it to sound strict, I want it to sound like it’s free. But it’s all written! [laughs] The heads are about a minute long, as we improvise off of them. I take them as just the starting point of the piece, that’s all. Just like any normal jazz head: we play the head and we take off from there. But unlike the old jazz heads, where there’s like a 12-bar form of changes. The head is more almost like a little classical piece, like a little theme that is very complex. Or a little piece where it’s extended over a minute, but there are little bits and pieces throughout the piece as you are improvising.
AJ: Are you a believer in documenting your compositions?
MM: Not always. With this particular group I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, with the trio with Matthew Shipp and Randy Peterson, for Hatology, it was called So What—there were like four Miles pieces and some of my own—my own pieces were a reflection on Miles but they were very loose. It was the way that I wanted the piano and drums to play together. There was still some written material but some of it was very abstract, some of it was hardly notated.
The writing styles definitely change from group to group. Right now I am working on this quintet, which is probably the most written thing I have done. Dave Ballou on cornet, Matt Moran on vibes, Mark Dresser on bass, myself on viola, and Randy Peterson on drums. This is a really nice group. We played the last Vision Festival. It was taped and it might become a record. That particular group has a very specific writing style. I wanted to challenge myself with writing, basically, five part tunes. Like, I don’t for the melody and then the rhythm section just plays whatever through the changes… I write the bass part, the vibes part…it’s almost like a little chamber orchestra or a chamber group. We play these different heads that are very organized as they are written. When the improvisation comes we just gradually fade away from what is written into improvisation.
AJ: Has Thirsty Ear called you back?
AJ: That whole series is pretty consistent. I’m enjoying your disc, Blue Decco.
MM: Thank you. I’m having a great time with that band; I just did a gig with them just a few days ago. It was a lot of fun.
AJ: This record turned me on to Craig Taborn. I had not heard anything from him prior to that.
MM: Matt Shipp recommended him. Matt basically recommended the group, kind of based on the Blue Series. I had already worked with Gerald Cleaver, with Joe Morris quite a bit. We had toured together and we had really hit it off. So Gerald and I both expressed an interest in working with one another on something. And Gerald was good friends with Craig. And Matt Shipp had just done a Roscoe Mitchell thing with Craig Taborn, the two piano thing. So Matt recommended him. I hadn’t really heard him before then, but Matt and Gerald both recommended him strongly. We had William Parker along and Matt wanted to keep a consistency with the Thirsty Ear recordings, with the rhythm section and all that.
AJ: Are you going to ask Taborn back?
MM: Yeah, we've already done around three or four gigs in different settings. We have a good friendship and he actually lives about a three-minute walk from my place, which is great. We hang out once in awhile. A few nights ago we did a quartet gig, except there was no piano there, but there was a Hammond B-3. I had written a whole bunch of new tunes, so we played off of those. It was really fun. We might do something else with the B-3. Gerald was there. William was out on the rode so we used Chris Lightcap. It was a lot of fun.
AJ: That is certainly a great circle of musicians that you are involved with.
MM: I'm enjoying it very much. We all have a very good relationship. I just played on Gerald Cleaver's new record, his first record as a leader. It was for Fresh Sound. I have a very difficult time remembering names. It is something I just haven't mastered yet. It's funny, I'm the complete opposite of Matt Shipp with that stuff. I remember, I have this friend who did some work for me like ten years ago. He saw me and Matt play one of our first gigs together. He came by and said "Hi" and that was about it. Like ten years later, the same friend came by, and Matt Shipp goes, "Hey Mike! How's it going? You still living in Philly and blah blah blah?" It was incredible. He met the guy for one minute and ten years later remembers everything about him. And they had hardly talked!
AJ: "Mike, I see you got rid of that tiny mole."
MM: [laughs] It was so…eerie. I can't remember someone I met five minutes ago. It's like Matt has really trained his mind for something like that. It's hilarious.
AJ: They say that people who can't remember others' names are just incredibly arrogant.
MM: [laughs] I must be incredibly arrogant.
AJ: I have the same problem. I can't remember names for shit. But I try.
MM: I think I picked it up from my father. And my mother. They both have that same problem. I think that there is a lot of forgetfulness in my family. My mother's mother started forgetting everybody's name by the time she was fifteen. I think that I'm doomed. I really try nowadays. It's actually hard for me to remember, well, anything. Let alone a name.
AJ: Well, out of all the people you meet, how many would you want to remember?
MM: Oh quite a few. Quite a few. You have to imagine like if you do a show, a bigger show, and you meet five reviewers, five people or musicians that you have wanted to meet or have never met before, five interesting people that do art, and then you have met like twenty very interesting people…who knows? They might become close friends. Or they may help you out and book you in California next year. But you're not writing them down because it happens so very quickly. You're not talking to one person more than four or five minutes at a time. For me, I get very confused easily.
AJ: Let's talk about you and your instrument. You play violin, viola, electric violin… What's the difference between violin and electric violin?
MM: The electric violin allowed me to do a few things. One, with electric instruments I not only have four-string instruments, but six-string instruments. So I can get into a very low register, which has always appealed to me. I have always wanted to play lower notes. I've always liked the bass, the trombone, things that sound in the lower register. I was always frustrated with the violin, thus the viola. And even then, well, I want to get lower. The electric violin can do it. When you do it with an acoustic, it tends to sound shitty. But with an electric violin, since you don't have to worry about the actual acoustics of the instrument (you just have the strings and the pickup), if it's the right amp and the right kind of construction on the bridge, it sounds great.
AJ: Have you ever picked up the cello?
MM: I used to teach the cello a little bit to beginners. I can play scales on it, it's an octave lower than the viola. The whole mechanism of it being…your arm not being twisted around like on a violin, bowing is all backwards, you're on a different side of the instrument. It's not an instrument that I really want to get into. It takes so long to really master it to the level of where I really would want it to be, you know.
AJ: You're happy with where you're at, then.
MM: Well yeah, I've spent a long time just trying to keep my technique. Progressing on what I've done all my life is hard enough.
AJ: That's a cozy world. I don't know how some people, like Joe McPhee…he has six different embouchures that he has to maintain.
MM: Yeah, it's hard! And if you don't do it every day… When he switches to trombone or something I know he suffers a little bit.
The difference with electric violin is there is a lack of acousticness with it. That's the only difference. Using it in rock, for instance, is great. Using different mediums with it, like the wah-wah pedal, if you want to get that Miles funk thing going. I can adapt it to the context of any gig, it's great. Not that I'm into effects, but if you want to get a somewhat distorted sound… Even with a clean sound, which is what I focus on, it is great to get the lower strings. With acoustic instruments there is the other side to it, getting the acousticness out of it, almost a very characterized sound. Each instrument has such a character, a kind of frailty in a way, which is appealing to me.
AJ: Is there a lot of competition with other violin players?
MM: Not the kind of competition that, say, a tenor saxophonist has. Or a drummer has. But in another way, there aren't the kind of gigs available that a drummer has. Not many people are going to call up a violinist. And especially someone like me, not many people are going to call me up anymore for regular gigs, which I used to do all the time. But now that I'm more recognized as doing certain things, they don't think I can do it…but I still do actually. Like the weddings. You know, I have to make a living. And I'd rather do that than get a day gig. So if I have to go down and do a Pepsi commercial and play a jingle with some stupid violin line, I'll do that. No big problem. But you don't get as many calls. There is competition in what I'm doing. There's people like Mark Feldman.
We actually have a nice friendship. We hardly talk to each other because we live in separate neighborhoods. Last time I ran into him, I was doing a record with Ellery Eskelin in one room. Mark was in the same studio, in the other room working with John Abercrombie. It was fun, we got to hang out some. It was funny because I was recording for Hat Art with Ellery [Eskelin] and he was working for ECM with Manfred Eicher. So we got to hang out. Mark’s a great improviser. I have respect for his prowess as both a great violinist and a great improviser. Stylistically, we both know that we are doing very different things. So there is plenty of room for both of us to be around. It's nice.
AJ: Are there any of your contemporaries that you are particularly fond of or that you wouldn't mind studying with, to put your heads together?
MM: Well, studying time for me is over. I like to teach now. [laughs] But studying time for me is always on the gig. I just want to play with somebody who is doing something that I can really learn from. But as far as going to a lesson, for me, is long over. I just don't feel the need for that unless it's like a classical brush-up or something. Or learning something that I have no idea about. Yeah, I'd love to have a close friend on the violin, where we really speak the same language. I feel pretty isolated.
AJ: Aren’t you and your dad on almost exactly the same page?
MM: We're on as close to the same page as you can get, although we still disagree about certain things. As far as having anyone know where he is in his career, it is definitely me. And he is one of the few people who knows what I'm doing on a deeper level. And I think Randy knows as well because he has worked with us for so long. Randy is one of the people who dates back to my teenage years. I met him when I was around eighteen and he became one of the most influential people on my style. He really came in and I think both of our lives have affected each other lives so much that no change has been so strong for me as meeting him and vice-versa, I think. When we met he was a straight ahead bebop player, probably one of the best that I have ever heard. He just floored me. And then I was doing this out stuff that he wasn't really into, but he was curious about it. "You mean you can actually do this. You can actually create music beyond the changes and this and that, but effectively." I think that he was frustrated with a lot of the free jazz and the sloppiness, the lack of detail. And chaos.
AJ: Chaos just for the sake of not doing anything?
MM: Right. He really changed a lot of what I was doing. And I think that I changed a lot of what he was doing. He doesn’t play straight-ahead much anymore unless he has to. I really learned a lot from him with time playing.
AJ: You are a practitioner of microtonal music. You incorporate microtones into your music.
MM: Yes I do. But I am not a practitioner of microtonal music. I practice microtones, but… My father definitely promotes it. But even when we are improvising, we do not sit like monks in a cell, balancing measurements of microtones.
MM: To get back to the style issue and the cliché issue, a lot of times people say, "Oh, you guys play microtones. Sit in with us." They'll be playing their instruments, trying to play every note in order which is so boring and stupid. And it has nothing to do with that. Nothing to do with that. It's just that there are more notes under the sun than you can imagine. And if you're going to use them, you have to use them effectively. You can't just play a lot of notes between the half-step. That's not what microtones is about.
Recently I recorded a classical string trio. I call it classical, when it is fully written out from beginning to end, it's a classical piece. And it was all microtones, using a certain system that my father and other people use, 72 notes to a scale. I had to play this. And I practiced and I practiced, and I did it. I could tell you why this pitch is that, or what effect this has over that… In improvisation, it's like saying why the blues has out of tune notes. But they're not out of tune.
AJ: Like bent notes?
MM: Sure, bent notes. But they're not bent! When you start incorporating microtones into your music it becomes so natural. Like in my trio records, I do play certain notes out of tune. But I'm not playing microtonal music. The way I write music is still in the traditional twelve note scale.
AJ: Now, what are you calling out of tune? Because I hear you using atonal notes quite a bit.
AJ: With that being one of your methods or part of your language, what are you getting at with "out of tune"?
MM: To me, it's not out of tune.
MM: A lot of people say I am a microtonalist, but I'm not. I'm not a microtonalist. Most of the gigs I do are not microtonal at all. But the element is there. Just like in any blues player, the element is there. Because they are playing microtones to westernized standards. Ornette Coleman always playing everything sharp does not mean that he is a microtonalist. It's his style. He plays certain notes sharper than others, sometimes to create a certain tension. But no one says, "Oh, Ornette Coleman, the microtonalist."
AJ: For the readers, what is your definition of microtones?
MM: Microtones are notes between the half-steps. Only because we have to define it as that in westernized scales. They can be measured or not measured. It depends on the system which you are using. In certain musics it’s only like certain scales where the second is a little bit sharp or the third is a little bit flat. In other musics it's equal-tempered. Some people use just intonation. To me, I'm not so concerned with that. I don't consider myself a microtonalist at all. But microtones are naturally in me. As are certain scales of Eastern music, or the twelve tones of equal temperament in the Western scales.
AJ: Thank you for explaining that.
MM: No problem!
AJ: Feel like shooting the shit a little longer?
MM: That'd be great.
AJ: The sizes of your groups vary in personnel. Do you have a preference as to the size of the unit?
MM: Yes. See, I've always loved chamber music and the string quartet. The quartet is kind of an easy choice for me. But I love doing trios, which allows me to really be a solo voice almost entirely. When I'm playing in a quartet, like with my father--which is another of my favorite groups – I tend to do a lot of comping. A lot of people think that the violin can't comp, but in a lot of ways…I'm playing double stops or triple stops like a guitarist or a pianist would. I've enjoyed that element. In the trio, sometimes the spotlight is on you for so long…it's hard, but I enjoy that challenge and it becomes a very personal thing. I like groups anywhere from one to seven people. The bigger it gets, the more control there has to be. Like for instance, I have a trio, I have a quartet, I have a quintet and I'm trying to form a sextet right now that will probably have Craig Taborn in it, Jerome Harris on his acoustic-electric bass, and I'm trying to find a cellist right now and a horn player, and then perhaps Randy Peterson. I've already started working on that, so it should be interesting. I've done a lot of duets, with Joe Morris, Matthew Shipp, several with my father, with Randy Peterson, and several others….Um, I'm kind of getting duetted out at this point. I've done it a lot, quite a few records with a duet.
AJ: Is it that you have nothing left to say at this point in that format?
MM: Well, there's always something more to say. It's just that the feeling of being just you and another person, and then trying to combine your styles…It's always great and it's always a lot of fun, but it's always probably the biggest challenge.
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