In your article 'Texas: Three Days and Two Nights' which later was published as 'The Road, The Radio and The Full Moon' you describe your experiences as a pedal steel player in the vivid but also conservative spirit of the country music scene in Texas. How do you look back on this period today and how did it shape you as a musician?
Well, one thing it taught me was how to watch my back in certain situations. I guess what I remember about that time was that the music seemed so very alive. Within a structurally limited framework, there were some really good musicians playing with honesty, conviction, and taste. I think perhaps what it taught me musically was to get to the point, to be able to say something meaningful with few notes and to allow each note to tell its own story. Simple and direct. I have great affection for what is at the heart country music and great respect for its musicians.
When did you start to grow out of this traditional music to explore more experimental genres like jazz and improvised music? Or was that something that has always been a side track?
It was always there. I’ve always had an ear for things that were . . . different. When I was starting out, I didn’t think there’d be much interest in some of the music I wanted to play, and I needed to improve my technique on the pedal steel guitar. In 1997, I think, I was invited to play at a performance space in Houston, Texas for a series called “12 Minutes Max” in which you could do anything you wanted as long as it was under twelve minutes. I told myself that I wasn’t going to prepare any music or even think of ideas; I would just sit there in front of an audience and play whatever seemed appropriate. And that was quite a watershed. There was no place to hide - not behind a written score, form, or other musicians - just me and the audience. In a way it was like being naked, but it was liberating, and that night informs everything I’ve done since.
Somewhere you mention an anecdote of you as a young child playing with the pedals underneath the piano while your mother was playing. A very intuitive and physical but also intimate connection to sound and instrument. Can you relate these early experiences in sound and music to your later explorations on the pedal steel guitar?
Hmm, I’ve never thought about that. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a physical feeling about music — I want something that will relate to the heart and the soul, but also something you can sort of feel in your bones.
You are influenced by the compositions of Olivier Messiaen and Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong. Do you have a favorite birdsong? Are there other sounds in nature you like to listen to?
I love Messiaen’s birdsong, but what attracted me to him, more than that in many ways, was his approach to harmony, tempo, and orchestration. My favorite birdsong is probably the dove because there are mourning doves that congregate every day by my front door. Other sounds in nature I like — rushing water, especially over rocks. Sometimes I like the sound of rain or the silence after a heavy snow. I like wind rustling through the trees. And I like many sort of random sounds that are connected to this Anthropecene epoch we are now living in.
How did you become connected with Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening music? In what way did it help you to grow in your practice as a composer and free improvisor?
I first met Pauline in 1990 when I attended her first Deep Listening retreat on Rose Mountain in northern New Mexico. She was from Houston, where I was living then, and where I had lived for many years, so there was a connection. My two daughters took piano lessons from Pauline’s mother Edith Gutierrez. The Deep Listening approach to music had a profound effect on the way I saw music. It taught me to listen to the tiniest things, the most subtle sounds, to respect and “play” the space where I was. With my music, there was definitely a “before” and “after” with Deep Listening.
For your album 'Soledad' you patiently spun out the Tango compositions of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla who played the bandoneon, an oversized accordion. Was it difficult to translate the emotional expression of Tango to the pedal steel guitar and did it change your relationship with your instrument?
To me the emotional expression of Piazzolla’s tango came natural, because I identified with that feeling. The bandoneon and the pedal steel guitar have a lot of similarities — both can sustain notes, and both have lungs, both breathe into the music (and occasionally need to come up for air) — the bandoneon with its bellows and the pedal steel guitar with its volume pedal. I think that every new thing you play in some way changes your relationship with your instrument, and Piazzolla is no exception.
Which piece of music opened your ears? When was that and why did it affect you so much at that moment?
There were several piece of music that really opened my ears, affected me greatly, and perhaps changed my approach to creating music. I remember the first time I heard Edgard Varese’s Ameriques — I was in my early teens. When I first heard John Coltrane in maybe 1967 or 68, Invocation to Om — that was quite an eye-opener, and it opened me to another world of possibilities. The same thing happened when I first heard Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Seeing Astor Piazzolla live left a deep impression. Olivier Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum affected me too. Another one, more personal, was hearing the great pedal steel guitar master Buddy Emmons’s black album — there I heard the beauty, the purity, and the endless possibilities of the instrument I now play.
I think the link between all of these is that I had a very visceral reaction to all of these, an almost physical process of awakening something inside of myself, pointing me in all sorts of new directions.
You have explored and mastered a great range of musical styles on your instrument. Is improvising with other musicians a way to blend and transform these styles into other, more idiosyncratic forms?
Though I don’t think I have truly mastered anything, I guess in some ways, you are what you eat. Historically, many, if not most, improvising musicians have varied backgrounds, some because they grew up with a certain kind of music, because we were really into a genre for a while, because they had to play various styles at times to make a living with their music. And also, some people have a deep affinity for a lot of kinds of music. With everyone, myself included, perhaps these are ingredients that go into that great pot of improvisational stew.
Are there differences in playing free improv with European musicians compared to playing with musicians from the USA?
I think at one time that was true, but now I don’t hear it as much, especially from younger musicians. There is so much music available at the click of a mouse that we exposed to everything. Sometimes I think that many of the European musicians have better training than American musicians, but I could be wrong. I think the differences are not so much between continents as between individual musicians.
What is your favorite recording setting?
With some recording sessions there’s this attitude of “Let’s go for it.” I find these quite refreshing. I like recording at home too — there’s a sort of silence and an interior feeling when I play through headphones, alone, often late at night or just before dawn.
On which project are you currently working on?
Right now I’m writing music to record a solo album. California saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and I recorded an album three months ago that, I think, came out really well. Phillip is a musician with quite an amazing ear. And next week I’ll be recording an album with Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark — I’m really excited about that one. Also, I’ve been touring, mostly solo, a lot in the US and performing with the Mary Halvorson Octet. And the future? Who knows.