Barney McAll’s creeping unease

Pianist-composer  Barney McAll began his career in Melbourne (working with artists like Allan Browne, Ruby Carter and Vince Jones), but has spent the last 14 years in New York (where he has worked with Gary Bartz, Josh Roseman and Fred Wesley, among others). He premiered Graft at the 2011 Wangaratta Jazz festival: a daring and vividly imaginative extended work for jazz ensemble and choir. He will launch the Jazzhead recording of Graft with an encore performance at Stonnington Jazz. Barney McAll (piano, keyboards), Andrea Keller (piano), Eugene Ughetti (vibraphone), James Gilligan (acoustic bass guitar) will be joined by the 16-voice Invenio Choir, led by Gian Slater.

Jazz-planet: What got you started thinking about technology in this way, and the [to quote you] ‘the bizarre affect it is having on human connection’? Was there an epiphany or has it been a creeping unease?

Barney McAll  at keyboard, with Invenio Singers in background
Barney McAll at keyboard, with Invenio Singers in background

Barney McAll: I would say creeping unease. Looking around at family or social gatherings and seeing how YouTube, Facebook and general internet/digital activity has become such a supreme focus whereas ten years ago there was so much more human interaction.

When playing a gig it’s stunning to see how many people are texting throughout or videoing. The piano is an old world instrument so when I play I suppose I am always seeing the comparison. My son Julius trying to swipe the TV to see a new channel is bizarre to me or how I sometimes try to ‘Ccontrol F’ in my brain when I’m trying to find something around the house.

I recently read where Keith Jarrett was doing a solo concert and people were constantly taking pics and filming and his response was:

‘It’s not that I don’t like my picture taken. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. It’s a process here. It’s not something photograph able. When people take whatever they take home with them, it’s meaningless. BUT IT SCREWS WITH US.

‘Like, imagine back to some amount of time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures.’

That to me says a lot. Firstly that craftsmanship is in jeopardy but also how much technology limits our ability to maintain awareness of the present. Maybe our downfall will be a result of that crucial metaphysical nutrition known as ‘the present’ being systematically withdrawn from us. This is one of the meanings behind a track on GRAFT, ‘Nostalgia For The Present’. Its like people are constantly in need of capturing and documenting their lives and whilst imagining how it will represent them on their blog or page in the future – they stop being there and don’t ingest anything. I would say ‘occupy the present’.

Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984 by the way.

J-P: Do you think we’re talking enough about how everything about life is being impacted by technology? Are we allowing ourselves to be snuck up on? Are there enough artists, writers, musicians talking about these issues?

On the one hand, what is happening is happening way too fast for us to avoid the pitfalls of it. If we are being snuck up on, we can’t know what the outcome will before we are ‘caught’ in a way. There are however some obvious things going on.

I’m certain social networking has increased the divorce rate internationally, and there are Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD), Texting addiction, a high rate of accidents caused by texting, Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), Video Game addiction…

Shouldn’t we make sure we spend more time with real people than we do with ‘digital people’ because the amount of human interaction we have has gone way down in the last ten years!

On a positive note, I recently went to see Bjork’s Biophelia: An Exploration Of Nature Music and Technology.

She had these crazy church organ-looking keyboards with that beautiful blond wood that organs have in many churches. And they were midi triggering these wacky futuristic/medieval fugue interpretations of her compositions by themselves, ghost style and THEY were her ‘support band’. Hilarious.

She had all these huge screens that had images being generated by the music she was delivering live, and there were quotes you could read about the positive power of technology and nature combined and she had

David Attenborough narrating some of these ideas: ‘much of Nature is hidden from us, we can use technology to reveal what Nature conceals, in the same way as with music we reveal our hidden emotions to others’

It was a beautiful way of dealing with things, I thought.

As far as other artists writing about these things, Science fiction writers like Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Orwell etc have obviously been discussing these issues before they were even issues but things have really sped up and I think a lot of creative responses are now made in the abstract. A lot of techno / electronica musicians are making comments about our state of technological ‘burn out’ and they are doing it with sound itself.

J-P: Is there a difference in awareness of these in the USA compared to other parts of the world? e.g. Australia, or Europe?

I would say there is probably an equal level of awareness everywhere that iPhones and iMacs and iPads and Ibooks and iSlaves are sold and obsessively utilised.

cover of you are not a gadgetYou only have to get on a tram in Melbourne or go to a concert in Europe to see how all encompassing gadgetry has become.

Interestingly I offer some antidote in the form of a down loadable .pdf.

Jaron Laniers’s ‘You are not a Gadget’

J-P: What’s the Singularity and do you think it is really possible?

I first learnt about it watching the Ray Kurzweil documentary Transcendent Man.

I think the term is a little ambiguous but basically describes a scenario where technology develops beyond human intelligence and at that point, because we would be unable to comprehend it, technology itself would very rapidly speed up and eventually engulf humanity. I actually do believe it is possible! Shoot me down in flames but I feel like for example, when your cell phone buzzes in your pocket but when you check it there is nothing, is a very subtle example of it.

When you walk down any street, it seems every home is has the ominous light of a computer screen glowing (I wrote this interview by hand and posted it to Ms Zolin by the way). [Ed’s note: Yup]

J-P: Please describe Graft – (instrumentation, how long is it, is it a suite of discrete pieces… )

Graft is 10 pieces for choir, two pianos, bass, drums, vibraphone, Chucky and laptop. It came to full fruition after Adrian Jackson offered me a chance to present it at Wangaratta festival last November but I had been thinking about the concept for a while.

cover art for GRAFT CD
Cover art for GRAFT CD

Here is a quick rundown of the pieces:

The first track ‘Sexmagikdeath’ was written after watching the Pablo Picasso Documentary Magic Sex Death. I watched it a year or so earlier but it sort of reared its head in the tonality or feeling of this piece. The underscore to the film has a similar feeling to what I came up with. Then I had my friend Chris Gavito write some lyrics for it which just drop in towards the end. So it’s not really a song but the lyrics are a surprise… just as technology’s speed can be a surprise?

The seed for ‘Jazz Epidural’ was planted after a dream I had where George Orwell was trying to give birth to a new music but needed an epidural. I also remember some dead fish floating in a river and the phrase ‘abandon the jazz pole vault’.

‘Nostalgia For the Present’ came together slowly and was written after hearing Invenio on some Mp3s that Gian had sent me.

‘Firefly’ was something I wrote in a bunk on a tour bus whilst on the road with Sia. I played it to her and she heard a melody immediately and popped the vox on in Los Angeles a few months later. Her lyrics and pretty revealing and also they are not.

‘Leiby’ is a two part homage to the tragic story of a small boy who lived around the corner from me here in Brooklyn.

‘Evie’ is about memory and memory loss and about a resulting fractured past.

‘Catch A Falling’ was written for the late Sam McNulty, a brilliant rapper and musician and son of Chris McNulty who sings on it.

‘Blood USB’ was another one written after hearing Invenio. After I heard them I realised how much they could do and it was very inspiring. I also wrote this on a tour bus.

‘Struggle Continues’ is about just that.

‘The music is the magic’ is one of my favorite Abbey Lincoln songs. She was such an amazing composer as well as vocalist. I thought I would put her song at the end of the album as a technology palette cleanser.

Generally the album attempts to juxtapose the beauty of Gian Slater’s Invenio Singers against a morphing sound mattress of subtle technology and improvisation between a rhythm section with two pianos and vibes.

Its funny because when I sent it to Andrew Walker at Jazzhead (who released the album) he listened to it and said, ‘It’s extraordinary but you need to re-check the master because I’m not sure which skip and glitch is intended!’

That was a great compliment in a weird way. It’s not an obvious subversion but there is some subversive element to what I’m doing if only to highlight or express the glitches I witness in actual people these days and many of the interactions around me. Have you noticed that people can now text with one hand and hold a conversation with you at the same time?

J-P: How do you attempt to address ambiguity? [this responds to your press release and is about your improvisation / composition, shadow / light, and… how the use of the choir fits in with your compositional ideas about humans and technology]

GRAFT at Wangaratta Photo: supplied

Well, I feel that the human voice is the most pure human expression, the most direct.

Gian Slater has a really distinctive and pure sound and her choir is for me, within this project, symbolic of light and humanity and clarity. So I took the sounds of the acoustic instruments and the choir and I processed them using the computer as a way to look at this ghost in the machine (unexpected spinning beach ball) or to express this feeling that things are slight off kilter. At times the processing is almost subliminal at other times it’s more brazen.

I think Im only scratching the surface of what I want to say and how I want to say it because I learnt so much making this record so I intend to make another album along these lines and get a little more extreme.

J-P: Often by the time I’m talking to a musician about a project they’re presenting, they’ve moved on to another creative project in the background. What are you working on now?

Well, I’m completing some Guajira influenced pieces written for guitar, piano, bass, drums and percussion.

I had been writing them a while back but then I got an extra spot at Stonnington Jazz festival to perform them as well as the Graft piece on a separate day so I thought I had better scrub them up!

They aren’t true Guajiras but there are some sections that have that hypnotic feel to them and they are all fairly slow.

I’m also working on a solo piano recording which will be called Wiltblossom.

Recently after some huge upheaval my friend Josh Roseman invited me to his studio ( where I have been doing some post production, but when I got there he had kindly set up these amazing mics he had over the Bosendorfer Grand they have at and he said ‘your work today is to improvise some solo piano’!

What a fantastic gesture… and it was really very cathartic to just have a chat with that amazing piano on that day.

J-P: And our standard… question. What are you listening to now? What’s making you sit up and take notice?

Zomby Dedication

Keith Jarrett G.I. Gurdjeiff sacred hymns

Skrillex Monsters and Nice Sprites

Villa-Lobos: Complete Music for Solo Guitar

A lot of Gospel music especially The Clarke Sisters and Donald Vails

Always Brian Eno/Harld Budd The Pearl. Every day.

Various Meridith Monk

Lewis Taylor, The English soul singer is amazing. Wow. His song ‘Blue Eyes’.

Barney McAll concerts at Stonnington Jazz

Thu 24 May, 8pm – Chapel off Chapel, Barney McAll’s Chaos Lento: a Guajira Project / John McAll’s Black Money
Fri 25 May, 8pm – Malvern Town Tall – Barney McAll’s GRAFT

Barney will also be at Venue 505 on 19 May