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Interview with Tom Swafford

March 11, 2010

Tom Swafford is a New York based violinist and composer active in a wide variety of genres. He performs with his 12 piece group String Power, rock band Emanuel and the Fear and Cajun/country band Potbelly Gumbo, freelances in various groups and busks in the NYC subways.  On March 19th at Roulette, Swafford presents The Real (?) Me, an evening of compositions centering around This is the Real Me – a distilled opera written for vocalist/performer Gelsey Bell that addresses the issue of not just musical but personal self-definition through extended vocal techniques, a variety of musical styles, facial expressions and physical gestures.

ROULETTE: Tell us as about the work you’ll be doing at Roulette. Possible things to speak to: what was the origin of the project?
This project began with the piece I wrote for singer/performer Gelsey Bell, “This is the Real Me.” I call it a distilled opera- it uses only the words of the title and incorporates mime, gestures, facial expressions, extended vocal techniques as well as various styles of music.

I met Gelsey through mutual friends in the group ThingNY. I first started thinking along these lines when I heard a ThingNY concert featuring wild performance piece by Paul Pinto, and at another ThingNY concert I heard Gelsey perform and I knew that I wanted to write something for her.

“This is the Real Me” is partly about my search for a musical identity. In Seattle I played primarily improvised experimental music. When I moved here I decided to try out as many musical styles as I could- rock bands, bluegrass, music theater etc. I still love those styles but about a year ago I asked myself- which style of music is really mine?

The piece is not just about me. I also wanted to give the performer as much freedom as possible to express her own musical self. As a performer myself I appreciate being able to add my own voice to a piece so this is something I always try to do when I compose. Gelsey and I collaborated on this- and this was perfect because, in addition to being a great singer, she is interested in these other aspects of performance. She is completing a PhD in Performance Studies at NYU.

So I took this theme and built a concert around it. All of the rest of the music involves this search for a musical identity in some way. I wrote some pieces for my group String Power. That group plays mostly arrangements of pop and jazz music. I wanted to write pieces for that group that express my own musical self more. I’m also including a piece for strings and narrator (the amazing Lee Todd Lacks) called Your (so called) ‘Music’ that uses a piece of hate mail I received after a concert of experimental music I presented in Seattle. I was both proud and ashamed to receive that letter. I had to ask myself if I really wanted to write music that people hate so much. I have concluded that yes, I do.

The opening piece is called Hecklepiece and addresses some of the issues faced by all of us who make a living as working musicians- being told what to play, where to stand, how to act on stage and so on. It also represents my inner critic.

And I’ll also be playing an improvised duo with drummer Matt Crane. Often I feel like the music I play with Matt might be closest to my true musical self. But I’m not sure! (ok so it’s actually an impossible question to answer)

R: Are there working artists today with whose work you identify, or rather, who do you consider to be your peers?
I really like what ThingNY does. I also like Eyvind Kang, Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman, Keeril Makan, Tristan Perich, Matt Welch, Missy Mazzoli, Anti-Social Music. And many more. I’d like to say they’re all my peers- but they might not agree with me (or in some cases even know who I am!)

R: What are some defining characteristics of the musical scene you would fit yourself into? What elements of your scene differentiate it from what has come before, or what is happening now?
TS: What I’m especially interested in is this boundary-breaking stuff. It’s been going on a long time. It is one of the reasons I moved to New York. Many of us play a lot of different styles- one night a rock or country band, and the next night experimental music and then maybe some nice chamber music. I like the idea of not looking down one’s nose at any particular style and instead drawing from any music, as long as it has some kind of meaning to the composer.

R: What was the last music you listened to?
I just watched some Maya Deren movies so that music by Teiji Ito is the last music I heard.  I went to a concert of John Cage music I really liked- part of the Avant Music Festival. My favorites were Songbooks and the String Quartet. And I liked the Tony Conrad/Jennifer Walshe show last month.

R: Chocolate, Vanilla or Rocky Road?
Rock Road for sure!

R: Do you consider yourself more a composer or a performer?
That’s a tough one. Right now I’m definitely more of a performer. I suppose compose while I perform. When I think of composing though I think of really getting into a focused, calm state of mind and generating some well organized, well thought out musical material that is based on really well thought out, interesting musical and extra-musical ideas. I don’t do that very much now. I’m finding it very difficult to get into a calm and focused state of mind. I hope to get there some time soon. But for now, mostly I perform.

R: Is there an event or experience that led you to start in experimental media?
I was first introduced to experimental music by my composition teacher at Tufts, John McDonald, who (along with Professor Katherine Bergeron- now at Brown) led the Tufts New Music Ensemble. We played primarily freely improvised music. This experience opened up all kinds of doors to what music could be and how music could be made. I also made some great friends, including Lee Todd Lacks who will be performing in the concert.

R: What is interesting to you about your own work?

After grad. school I studied in Amsterdam for a year with Louis Andriessen. I would come to his house every two weeks and plop down a score in front of him and wait for him to start talking. What he really wanted to do was have a dialogue about ideas. Among other things, he told me to go read some books. I didn’t understand what he meant. But I did read quite a few books. I’m only now beginning to come up with some ideas about what my approach and philosophies about music are. I think that it is important to be able to articulate what your aesthetic is. I cannot do that yet. But I feel like I’m getting a little bit closer. I like to write for performers- and allow them to fully express themselves (since as I said, this is what I like most about performing). I don’t just think of the instrument but the person playing it. What I am most optimistic about is that, once I firm up what exactly my aesthetic is, I’m going to be able to write music that at least I will actually like.
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