GORDON BEEFERMAN is a composer and pianist whose work spans opera, orchestral and chamber music, improvisation, and collaborations with dance and other arts. On Tuesday, September 22nd Gordon presents “Music for an IMAGINARY BAND” – a (real) 7-piece group comprised of some of New York’s most uniquely creative musicians. The band explores the territory where classical ‘new-music,’ jazz and free improvisation intersect. Beeferman’s compositions range from the gnarly to the operatic, and are both incredibly detailed and very free.
ROULETTE: Do you consider yourself more a composer or a performer?
GORDON BEEFERMAN: I really consider myself a composer-performer. For me the two are really inseparable. I grew up playing piano and writing music at the piano, and I’ve written plenty of music for myself to perform. These days I spend more time composing than performing, but that’s not necessarily by my own design– there are a few reasons. One is the ecology of the local music scene. There aren’t very many places for me to perform — I’m a pianist and very few experimental music venues have proper pianos (Roulette is a major exception). I used to perform a lot on junky uprights, but I’ve gotten a bit weary of it. The other reason is that composing demands so much of me — in time and energy– that I don’t have as much opportunity to get out there as I’d like. When you’re composing you don’t have to worry about things like junky pianos or bad sound systems or scheduling rehearsals. It’s just you and the music. It’s kind of ideal. Unfortunately you can’t stay there though.
I think it’s a great time to be a composer-performer. There was a period not long ago when composers were expected to be specialists — up in the ivory tower. It makes a lot more sense to be down on the ground in the nitty-gritty of making your music happen. You get a better result and it’s a whole hell of a lot more fun. Recently I saw an LP in a used record store– Stravinsky conducting “Les Noces” with Barber, Foss, Copland and Sessions playing the four piano parts. To me, that’s the best thing ever. Composers performing their own music, and each other’s.
R: Are there any people you see as instrumental in your development as an artist (influences, heroes, colleagues…)?
GB: First, my parents, who have never been anything less than supportive. They supported all my eccentric musical habits in childhood. That’s probably the reason I can do what I’m doing. Then my teachers, like Ran lake, and composers I discovered as a teenager, like Carla Bley, Ives, Bartok. Then friends and colleagues– Katt Hernandez, violinist, a close friend who is totally uncompromising when it comes to music and the artistic life– a real role model for me; Jeff Arnal, who I’ve had a duet with since 2000– he is a great musician, improviser, duo partner. When I moved to NYC I was isolated, mostly composing at home. We started playing together and he got me out of the house and involved in the local experimental/improvised music scene. At the same time he was supportive of all my outsized composing projects, presenting the opening scene of my chamber opera on the Improvised and Otherwise Festival, and then helping me to get the Imaginary Band recorded and out there. I thought I could do it all by myself, but I actually couldn’t. He showed me there was a community out there. As did Lisa Bielawa, another friend, great musician and role model. She ran the MATA festival for many years, and showed me it wasn’t pretty making it as a creative musician, but you could do it.
R: Is there an event or experience that led you to start in experimental media?
GB: I think I was born into it. There was nothing I could ever do to write ‘normal’ music.
R: What genre of music (pre-defined or newly defined) would you fit your work into?
GB: I’ll leave that to my friends. My friend David came up with the term “Post-Apocalyptic Chamber Music” which I quite like. Someone else came up with “deconstructed jazz.” An old flame dubbed it “the punk rock version of classical music,” which I don’t know is totally accurate, but which I quite like.
R: What is it that you want people to hear/think about/be tuned into in your work?
GB: I want them to enjoy it on their own terms and make whatever synaptic associations they want. The main thing is to listen with an open mind and open ears. I like it when people come up to me afterwards and say “Your music made me think of a time I was (fill in the blank…. breast-feeding…in a car wreck…etc.)” or some such. I like knowing that other people have their own reaction to the music. It’s a relief knowing that others aren’t stuck inside my head like I am.
R: Tell us as about the work you’ll be doing at Roulette.
GB: What I’m exploring with the band is how to marry the super-free with the super-specific. For the past ten-plus years, I wrote reams of entirely-notated music (”classical”), and performed totally, 100% improvised music. It was great, but I realize now that it was a drag always having to compartmentalize that way. With the band, I’m also revisiting my “roots” in jazz, which I played, composed and studied when I was younger, but got alienated from, for a variety of reasons. Also, I’m enjoying being a band-leader, being able to collaborate with other musicians on my music, performing with them, learning from them, etc. As I said before, I’m not totally satisfied being on the outside of the music. When you write something for an orchestra, for example, it has to be 100% finished, down to every articulation. You can’t experiment, strictly speaking, in that kind of situation. All the experimenting has to be done at home. Here, it’s more of a collaborative effort, a more spontaneous situation.
R: Who are your major influences (musicians, art, literature, culture, etc)?
GB: I’m influenced by a combination of the high and low. My favorite opera is Berg’s “Lulu.” I love Messiaen, Bartók, Xenakis, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Stravinsky…those types. In jazz-land, Carla Bley, Miles, Monk, Don Pullen, Ellington, etc. I’ve been getting really into Brazilian music lately, samba, Tropicalia, etc. I’m a big poetry person and I read tons of novels. Lately I’ve been into Manuel Puig, Dawn Powell, Chester Himes, Salman Rushdie. When it comes to dance, I’m really into Merce Cunningham. I also love outrageous, over-the-top campy in-your-face stuff like early John Waters films. But I’m sort of over the “influences” thing. In the end you can’t get past who you are.