Griswold and Simmons prestidigitate the unexpected

Nimble fingered musical magicians Erik Griswold and Adam Simmons will pool their collections of toys, keyboards, found objects, reeds and flutes in a kaleidoscopic exploration of musical colourful sound during their Prestidigitation Tour. We spoke to them both by email to hear their thoughts on improvisation, collaboration, audiences and what to expect during the tour.

Adam, Erik and improvisation

Jazz Planet: Have you collaborated before? If so, when and what was the context and how is this different?

PrestidigitationAdam Simmons: Soon after Erik moved to Melbourne, we first played together in Kynan Robinson’s ‘En Rusk’, which was formed in 2000 and released a couple of well received CDs. Also there was a one-off special collaborative project of Kynan and Erik’s under the banner of The Elevators that performed at the 2004 Wangaratta Jazz Festival. More recently, in 2009 we have been part of Peter Knight’s Fish Boast of Fishing project, the recording of which was released on CD last year. And finally last year, Erik invited me to be part of Clocked Out‘s production of ‘Radio Plays’ for the Queensland Music Festival.

We’ve played music together for about 12 years now and long admired each others’ work, but we have always worked more in realising other people’s compositional aims rather than exploring our own. So, this duo project will be the first time we’ve concentrated on exploring something together and without the requirement to fulfil someone else’s vision.

Erik Griswold: I can corroborate that history!

JP: What do you enjoy about each others’ music?

AS: I always enjoyed how Erik worked in En Rusk. He’d never be give any specific music from Kynan – all he’d get would be the horn lines and the bass, and no specific instructions – that’s how I remember it. But Erik always had a knack for knowing what to do and how to create his own part – and it was not simply finding the chords and comping along. He would create/improvise these parts for himself that just set the music off beautifully and unusually. He was obviously capable of playing jazz but his approach was so idiosyncratic. And it was this strong voice that he was creating that was inspiring to me – playing with Erik encouraged me to push myself into new directions.

Listening to his prepared piano concerts, I hear the work of someone who is highly dedicated to an exploration and control of sound – his beautifully rhythmic layers mixed in with the unusual combinations of altered piano sounds create such a lusicous world. There is a focus on craft in Erik’s playing that I admire greatly.

EG: I love the way that Adam throws himself wholeheartedly into any style of music that he happens to be playing. His ability to move seamlessly from abstract sound manipulation to funky grooves to soulful melodies is breathtaking. I really admire the fact that he’s stayed true to himself throughout the trials and tribulations of musical life in Australia. Specifically, there’s much in Adam’s work that I relate to – his ‘inside-out’ approach to musical structure, his engagement with multiple styles and formats, his involvement with toy instruments. There’s so much there I thought it was high time we explored some of these affinities in more depth!

JP: What, for you, is the most important ingredient of improvising with another musician?

Adam Simmons

AS: Communication or dialogue. I enjoy the exchange of ideas when improvising. I find this becomes much more direct in a duo situation as well as much more free-ranging in scope – in a larger group, one tends to fall into the playing the general role of the instrument, but as the number of people decreases, I feel that the roles become more shared and intertwined. But in this communication, there is also a need to contribute – it is not enough to just listen and nod acquiescently. It is important to offer strong comments, ideas, opinions – they can be in agreement or contradictory, or maybe it could be a request for clarification – whatever… the important thing is that each musician contributes. It can be that one contributes more at one point than another, with an ebb and flow, but in a true collaboration, the voices should at least have the potential to be equally heard.

Having said that – and I digress somewhat at this point – on a couple of occasions of free improv, I have chosen not to play. But my purpose in doing so was not to leave the group as a trio instead of a quartet – rather I felt so strongly that I was part of the quartet but that my best contribution to the group sound was to remain silent, but ever-present throughout the performance. And indeed, each time my silence had a profound effect on the ensemble as they were waiting for me to play and listening intently, waiting for something that unbeknownst to them at the time, was never going to happen.

I am sure I could rabbit on about different ingredients of improvising but you did only ask for the most important… I think communication covers a lot!

EG: For me, improvising means not knowing what’s going to happen, or which direction the music will go, when I start playing. When I play with a musician with a lot of depth – such as Adam – it means there are A LOT of directions in which the music can go at any moment. The focus might shift from sound to texture, from melody to harmony, from structure to concept. For me a great improvisation involves a lot of layers and a lot of overlapping ‘meanings’. One motif, texture or idea might relate to several layers at the same time. It’s this ability to ‘leap’ back and forth and make connections between your conscious and subconscious mind that I think makes for a really compelling improvisation.

JP: How important is it to be stretched and challenged? How important is it to know the other person really well?

AS: Well, I believe it is important to be stretched and challenged, but it doesn’t have to be increasingly inaccessible to be these things. The shakuhachi is one of the most challenging instruments I play, simply because I can play long notes for hours on end, and still keep hoping that maybe the next note might ‘be the one’. I enjoy both complexity and simplicity, but after my earlier years of trying to write more complicated and multi-layered music, I came to a point of realisation that by starting from a simpler concept that it then freed up the musicians to explore the music rather than just try to manage the negotiation of difficult materials.

Something else related to being stretched is the idea of keeping things fresh and constantly pushing to new places. This is something that came up when I was about 29-30 years old and I was playing with a couple of younger musicians in their early 20s. One of them in particular commented one day that he was dissatisfied with his performance as he felt he hadn’t done anything ‘new’ and that he had just played cliches. This got me thinking about the necessity or otherwise of constantly developing and changing one’s playing. Thinking of a Coltrane, Parker or other greats, it struck me that the great players develop their own voices through a collection of ‘clichés’ – it is the unique combination of these clichés, licks, phrases, etc that creates each of their individual voices. My friend’s comment made me think to actually embrace what I already had and to look at things more closely – accept what I had as being okay, but working to both refine and develop what I already had, rather than keep throwing it away in search of the novel and new.

Thinking of a Coltrane, Parker or other great, it struck me that the great players develop their own voices through a collection of ‘clichés’ – it is the unique combination of these cliches, licks, phrases, etc that creates each of their individual voices.

I am aware that someone listening to my music now compared to 20 years ago may not feel the two are connected but its not because I’ve sought to purge myself of the ‘old’ in favour of the ‘new’ – rather I feel I have tried to accept what I have at any point with the hope that it may evolve and grow over time. This is a kind of stretching, but there is a sense of discomfort and tension suggested by words like stretch and challenge. I prefer to encourage my thinking to be about exploring, changing perspective, developing, growing – words that have an additive, positive, opening out nature implied, rather than using words that are potentially more negative or confronting in their association.

Erik Griswold

As far as knowing the other person, I don’t think this is important for making music. I have had some incredible musical experiences with people I have just met. The important thing is to actually ‘meet’ the person wholeheartedly in the moment. Hopefully you will have had that experience of meeting someone for the first time where there is an immediate attraction (not necessarily physical, but maybe so) to each other as interesting people. Sometimes it just works. And musicians are by nature, I think, particularly open to these meetings as it is just part of the lifestyle. But having said that, I really value my longtime musical friends – the Adam Simmons Quartet is not so active these days, especially with Simon Starr living abroad, but one reason for not replacing him in order to keep playing is that as a quartet we have been friends and played for nearly 20 years. That is a long time and it means there are many things that have been shared and don’t need to be spoken, but also when we meet, we bring our recent experiences in and its like we catch up through playing music.

Another friend I have know for over 15 years is Brian O’Dwyer. I knew him for at least 10 years as someone who followed various bands I’ve played in. Then only a few years ago we talked of having a jam. We ended up putting that first jam out on CD as it felt there was something already in our duet playing, and I’m sure this was only because of actually knowing each other for a long period.

Erik I’ve known for a long time, though living in different cities has meant our playing together has not been very regular. I’m actually a little daunted by not quite knowing how best to engage with his skills, because I’ve either heard him solo (which seems complete in itself anyway!) or it’s been playing someone else’s music, so knowing how we might interact together and with what material is still to be explored. But at the same time, I’m completely comfortable as I do know him and with the mutual respect we have for each other, the trust in each other and the desire to play together is enough to know it will work!

EG: It’s a constant balancing act! Periods of pushing a stretching one’s boundaries are essential to keeping one’s creative edge, but then sometimes consolidating new innovations in a period of refinement leads to new musical discoveries. In a first time meeting with a new collaborator, it usually takes time to establish a dialog and a repertoire of shared ideas. It can be really fascinating to experience that process – to witness that conversation – but in the end the chemistry may or may not ‘work.’ On the other hand, with a long standing collaboration, the challenge is to keep the dialog fresh, and to keep pushing the music into new spheres of expression. With me and Adam, there’s a bit of both in the relationship…each of us knows each other’s style and world of ideas very well, but the duo format is a new adventure – which will challenge us into new directions!

About the Prestidigitation Tour

JP: What brought the Prestidigitation Tour about?

AS: You might have to ask Erik for his take on this also – I think we may have had a conversation about something and Erik suggested we should do some playing. I had a couple of solo gigs already tentatively booked in March, we both had free time and figured, ok… lets book some gigs! Working last year on the ‘Radio Plays’ was fun, yet a little restrictive because of the format – there were two radio plays in the show for which Erik had written the music. We were working with local amateur actors in Miles and Blackall. The music was interesting, but it had to serve a particular function and there was not a lot of room for exploring. But I think it was good for us both as we saw different sides of each others playing as well as the integrity with which we both fulfilled our roles. So for me I guess this tour is about seeing how our shared commitment to music-making can develop when we allow ourselves much greater freedom of expression.

EG: The idea for the tour grew out of our work on the Clocked Out production ‘Radio Plays,’ which we did in the outback as part of last year’s Queensland Music Festival. I think Adam and I both saw the potential to extend some of the things we started there. Also I realised we both shared an interest in performing for diverse audiences…whether it be jazz or experimental music fans, or just people interested in creative expression and hearing something different!

JP: What’s the name about – Prestidigitation suggests you are a pair of tricksters. What’s up with that?

AS: Again, this should be referred to Erik… but… When Erik suggested it, I had no idea of the meaning. Upon looking it up, I felt it was a lovely way to look at what we do. There is a sense of wonder about the playing of an instrument, a kind of ‘how does he do that?’ is often the response from even the parent of a new student of music. What Erik and I do is really to conjure up the most unusual sounds from our instruments and to find ways to present them in a musical way, not as a novelty in itself. I think this is what magic does – even when someone knows the trick, the illusion created by the magician can still suspend the viewer’s belief. I have listened to Erik playing solo before and been certain there was amplification or electronic processing, despite knowing that he was completely acoustic.

But as an alternative take on the word from its French origins, along the lines of ‘nimble finger’, I am sure that can apply more literally to the way both of us perform on our instruments!

EG: I’ve always thought there’s a ‘magic show’ aspect to the prepared piano. You see someone playing an ordinary looking instrument, but the sounds that come out are anything but ordinary. So there is definitely that sense of aural illusion. I think a lot of Adam’s solo work also has this dimension…the way he creates otherworldly sound phenomena by using a variety of extended techniques and unusual horns. I’ve also been working with a ‘left-brain / right-brain’ approach to the toy instruments and piano, where I play a kind of musical shell game, quickly swapping patterns between one instrument and another. This is another aspect of the illusion we’re creating. ‘Prestidigitation’ seems to encapsulate both of our approaches to our respective instruments – and it’s fun to say!

JP: What musical instruments will you be playing? Is that something that will be spontaneously decided on the night.

AS: I plan to have a range of instruments I’m currently enjoying playing, plus a few that I’m sure will provide for some interesting combinations with Erik’s selection. For some gigs, like Footscray Community Arts Centre or Campbelltown Arts Centre, we will have piano, but for some such as La Mama or Cockatoo Island, Erik will have to explore his other instruments as there will be no piano. I’ll probably have a few saxes, couple of clarinets (especially the contra bass), shakuhachis, maybe the alto flute, a few rubber chickens, some music boxes, and maybe even a balloon or two…

EG: I’m bringing along a small menagerie of small instruments, including my new 3-octave Schoenhut Toy Piano, my melodica and bass melodica, toy zither, music boxes, assorted bits and pieces…For most of the dates on our tour I’ll be playing a variety of different prepared pianos, while for a few I’ll be focussed on the intimate dynamic of the ‘toys’ (La Mama Musica, Cockatoo Island, Cooroora Institute). One thing I’m really looking forward to is exploring the full kaleidoscope of instrumental combinations with Adam!

JP: What can people expect to hear?

AS: The unexpected!

Well, for those that know what we do, that might not quite be true as we do have our soundworlds, but still what we choose to present may surprise… I have suggested a couple of my tunes that are really very through composed which may not be what people will expect from a couple of ‘kooky improvising tricksters!’

I would like to think that what will be experienced will be two artists conversing about – and sharing – their love of sound. Part of the meaning of ‘prestidigitation’ implies it is about ‘entertainment’ – ultimately when I present music in public it is for exactly that, performing to create enjoyment! But its not about making it easy – one can still be entertained while dealing with more interesting, deep artistic work. There is no need to dumb things down, as seems often to be the case, just because an audience is not familiar with an artform or a certain style of music. I believe that if there is a strength and artistic commitment in a piece of art, be it music, dance, visual, etc, then it will communicate at a fundamental level with anyone. So maybe, rather than suggesting what people will hear, I might suggest instead that what they will experience wlll be an event full of warmth and generosity of spirit, with a fair amount of deep inquiry, fluffed up with a good splash of humour!

EG: I think they should expect the full monty of musical possibilities! Anything from wild, stochastic improvisation to soulful heterophonies to infectious grooves or delicate introspections – with an emphasis on new tone colours and sound combinations.

Have a listen:

Listen to ‘alak-ala’ on Adam Simmons’ MySpace site. This is one of the pieces the duo will be performing during the Presdigitation tour. Adam says it’s played on fujara and ‘it might give an indication of the soundworld’ ))))

JP: What kinds of audiences would you like? Noisy, silent, lively, reflective?

AS: I like audiences that feel comfortable to be part of the experience – sometimes that is be listening intently, sometimes its whooping and cheering, sometimes its politely clapping, sometimes its being afraid to move for fear of breaking the spell. But I do prefer the response to be genuine rather than imposed or because of expectation. I must admit that probably most of these performances will be of a concert style, with a seated audience in an intimate setting and without the pressure of alcohol sales intruding on the music, so generally I think the atmosphere will be quite focused and encourage good listening. But I’m aware that in a live performance, the audience is actively engaged in contributing to the energy. Maybe it is being passively given, but once in a while a laugh, an exclamation, someone swimming across the floor or loud applause, will contribute to the musical experience.

I guess I would like an audience to be ready to share in an experience, be open-minded and respectful. And if there are any young children in the audience making a nuisance of themselves then I want the rest of the audience to applaud the fact their parents have realised the importance of exposure to music for a child’s development – and listen to how Erik and I embrace the extra ‘musical’ contribution.

EG: I’m happy to play for an audience of any persuasion. Preferably open-minded!

 Tour details

10 March, 8 pm – Footscray Arts Centre
12 March, 7:30 pm – La Mama Theatre, Carlton
13 March, 7:30 pm – Buninyong Brewery, Buninyong
15 March, 7:30 pm – University of Wollongong (1/4 Inch Series)
17 March, 8 pm – Campbelltown Arts Centre (see the event on Facebook)
18 March, 4 pm – Cockatoo Calling, Cockatoo Island, Sydney with Vanessa Tomlinson
19  March, 8pm – Pearl Beach Community Hall, Pearl Beach
24 March, 6 pm – Ian Hangar Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane
25 March, 3 pm – Cooroora Institute, Sunshine Coast

Adam Simmons website >>>>

Erik Griswold website >>>>

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