I visited Gino at his suburban home in Walnut Creek, California. When I arrive he is clearing room for a vegetable garden on the side yard of his house, working alongside his wife Laura and kids Isabelle and Marino. We go into Gino's garage studio to start our conversation.
Tim Perkis: So you work on your own projects here or...?
Gino Robair: Yes, and I usually have several running simultaneously. All of them are not necessarily improv based, although when I work in an editing situation like this, I'm pretty much working intuitively, and not working by any formal means. However, the piece I'm currently working on is called 39, and I'm doing 39 sequential variations on a theme. Each variation is going to be a single cdr, not a replicated cd or anything, so each person that buys one will get a specific version of the piece that only they will own.
So there will only be 39 of them made?
Yeah, there will be 39 of them, each holding a 39 min piece. There's synthesizer material from the analogue synth, there's stuff from amateur radio -- I spend a morning taping ham radio broadcasts in Anchorage, Alaska several years ago and I caught an amazing argument between these people, I have no idea who they are -- they're arguing about religion and satanism in a really strange way. So that stuff is intercut with some bowed styrofoam and synthesizer.
I know of you mainly as a percussionist; when did you start getting into doing all this electronic stuff?
Actually my interest in electronic music dates back to high school. Then I had a synthesizer and a four track recorder, and tried to do some musique concrete, but I didn't know you were supposed to splice tape diagonally, I used to just butt-splice it which would make popping, so I just used to mess with the popping...
But in college there was an electronic music studio and at that time it was just analog synthesizers. When I got to graduate school at Mills College and found there were computers -- I'd never really had my hands on a computer before -- I went from not really knowing anything about digital synthesis to eventually getting a degree in it.
But I've never actually found a way to do it live that I really felt other people weren't doing better, so I mostly do studio pieces. I haven't had a chance to release many of them, I've been just quietly working away on projects and just getting more and more into it. But now I'm at the point where I'm getting more of a sense of what I'd want to do in a live situation, so I'm investing in a laptop and I'm fighting with that at the moment.
So that's one project that's going, and then I just finished mastering " The Classic Guide to Styrofoam II" this morning, and then I also have my Beatles project which I'm working on.
Oh, what's that?
I'm using Beatles bootlegs, and it's 100% Beatle material but it's not Beatle material normally people would associate with the Beatles: drum rhythms, a bass hit, or maybe somebody singing a lyric but not quite how you've normally heard it. The idea is to make a Beatles record, a 100% Beatles record without making it sound like the Beatles, but to build new songs out of this material.
It's funny, you know John Oswald named this kind of thing "plunder-phonics", but almost everybody that's studied electronic music has done this at one time or another. It's natural, when you get records or tapes, to want to cut them up and see what you can do! One of the first recordings of electronic music I ever heard was Jim Tenney's piece from the 1960's, "Blue Suede," cutting up Elvis Presley's voice.
I have a fascination with how the Beatles ended up with such pristine sounding music -- a lot of times when you listen to their outtakes, they're so sloppy and messy! So I like taking those sloppy and messy things and building my own pristine things out of it.
It's actually quite inspiring to look into somebody else's process and see that they have the same kind of noisy edges and messy stuff that one is familiar with in one's own work. John Bischoff's father Elmer Bischoff was a quite accomplished and famous painter...
Oh, I didn't know that.
...and when he died a few years ago, John went through his studio, and he showed me a lot of drawings and small paintings that his father did that were unsigned and just lying around the studio. And some of them were just terrible! They looked like something that any of us who aren't visual artists at all might do.
Apparently it's the same for everyone: you just work, and work, and when good stuff comes out, that's what you show to people. And to know that even someone that accomplished...
...goes through the same process we all do, yeah.
Yes, the same process. Very inspiring.
When I was studying with Lou Harrison, he used to tell us: don't feel precious about paper, just go through reams and reams of paper, take some notes, write a piece and throw it away if it doesn't work. And Barney Childs used to say that when you have a piece, you're probably going to throw away about ninety percent of what you've written and end up with ten percent that really kills.
This is hard to do with an improv record. When you have a chance to do a session with somebody, you may get sixty minutes of music and you can't really throw away ninety percent because then you end up with a very short CD! That's why I did my Buddy Systems record (Meniscus MNSC003), which is made up of duos and trios with ten different players. I had tapes from so many different recording sessions with these different players, but maybe only 5 or 10 minutes from each that were really great.
It's late afternoon, and we move into the backyard and sit at the picnic table. Laura continues to work in the garden, and Isabelle and Marino are running around throwing pea pods at each other.
I've noticed that you seem to have kept a separation between your family life, here in the suburbs, and your musical life. How accidental or intentional has that separation been?
It wasn't on purpose at all: in fact I always thought that my life, my non-musician life, would not be so separate. I always figured I would marry a musician or an artist and our lives would be intertwined, and full of meetings and parties with other artists, and our children would play with the children of artists, and so on. And as it turns out I married a woman who is a nurse, who is becoming a landscape designer, and I moved into the suburbs, in order to have some space for the children, and we have friends who are not artists. And so suddenly I have this other side of my life that is completely not about art or avant-garde music or anything like that.
I think I noticed this about you because for many years I had a similar situation, I was married to a woman who wasn't involved in the arts at all, and was raising a daughter and really felt keenly the split in my own life.
Well, I think about how some of my favorite artists, like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, had aspects of their lives that weren't involved with art making: mycology for example, or chess playing. Although of course they didn't have children, and families. That I guess is a benefit for the 21st century new music artist: when you can't make a full-time living with your art, you get to make a life as well! But it's not really on purpose, I'm just lucky that this is where I ended up.
I know that you and I have both had day jobs that didn't involve music -- you know, that's the way it is. Sometimes I think it's actually healthy that way, and it really gives you a chance to come back to your music and look at it with a beginner's mind sometimes. You may put a piece down for a day, or even a week because life is so stressful, and when you come back to it you can really look at it with fresh eyes.
Although sometimes it would be nice not to have to step back so often!
So what is your day job?
I am senior associate editor for Electronic Musician magazine, which means I write and edit articles and I also do newsletters and help direct the content. It's not a bad day gig, you know.
Yeah, it's kind of in the field.
Yes, it's in the field, I'm in the music biz, I get to try out gear and keep up with the newest technology, and it gives me an excuse to borrow pre-amps and other gear for review, and that's really fun.
So I assume you went through a succession of day jobs before you landed in something that was that good a fit.
Yeah well, by the time I finished my electronic music degree at Mills College I hated electronic music, decided I didn't want to do electronic music at all, and I also didn't want to go on and get a Ph.D, or teach at a university. It was very frustrating, and so I went to work for my father in the beauty business, in the nail care business. I got my certificate as a manicurist,and did that for a couple of years, and then got a job as a music director for a saturday morning cartoon show. When that show got cancelled I ended up being a freelance musician for awhile until my wife got pregnant with our second child and was going to not work full time anymore, which meant our health insurance was going to disappear, so I had to get a job with health insurance. I just sort of lucked into this editorship at Electronic Musician, which was perfect timing.
So I didn't have to wash dishes or anything like that. I can't really complain, I've had a chance to do some music related jobs, and we've lived in the Bay Area, which is beautiful. You can't beat that.
It's funny, occassionally I'll have a musician from out of town come over and we'll record here at home, and then we take a break and we come outside and we just lay outside on the grass. Some of the musicians, like from Japan or from Europe, who are used to living in small quarters, are amazed by all this green American space around them.
Can you tell me about you time in London? I understand you undertook your own education by moving to London for a while after college.
Yes, well, after my undergraduate degrees, one was in composition, one was in percussion, I wanted to study improv but there was no graduate program anywhere at the time that really just focused on improv as a discipline. A friend of mine from the University of Redlands, Virginia Anderson, knew Eddy Prevost and AMM and said you could write him a letter, ask him if he would give you lessons. And his response was, well you have a degree in percussion, why do you want lessons from me?
But really I just wanted to find out what it took to be an improvising musician, what the lifestyle was like, how you just go about doing it. So it wouldn't necessarily be drum lessons, although I'd pick that up as well. So he said yeah, come on over, and if you want to hang out, that's great. So I sold my drum set, got a work permit and got a job over there, and I spent nearly a year just going to shows after work- pub shows and going to large concerts as well, mostly new music, new music-y improv stuff, some classical new music some free jazz. I would hang out afterwards and ask the musicians what they were doing and what they were thinking.
Coming from a university, the ivory tower, and also coming from southern California, where there is no creative music scene on that level, it was thrilling to move to London and see people involved in such a vital scene.
I had a lot of catching up to do intellectually, and spiritually in a way, just to see how it really informs your whole life.
Then occasionally I would go to Eddie Prevost's house and ask him questions about running a record label, or how do you deal with the dynamics of the LMC -- an organization there for creative musicians -- and just basically soaking up how a person makes a life in creative music. And Eddie has a life a little bit like this, he has a house well out of London, and he's got a little studio out in the back, he's got a wife and kids who are not involved in music and that was just really inspirational -- that you can have a life and you can do creative music, you don't have to sacrifice, you don't have to be an alcoholic or a drug addict to play free music!
Also spending an entire year not playing was very interesting, because I came from a conservatory style education in percussion, and so my free improv was informed by that traditional percussion approach. Though at the time I was also listening to AAM, AACM, Anthony Braxton and Carla Bley. I'd played a little bit of jazz, but I didn't really get it until I stopped playing drums and was able to shed a lot of my habits, things that I just always did, just because I could do them easily. I came back to the drums about a year later and was able to start from scratch.
The reason I moved to the Bay Area was that I met Braxton in London in '85, and he said that I should check out Mills when I got back to California. [Braxton was teaching at Mills at the time. -t ] So I checked it out, moved to the Bay Area, and I was able to study with him and also study with the electronic folks.
Like many musicians -- but more than most I know! -- you have a strong international connection. You're always playing with people who are coming through from Europe or Japan or different places around the US. I've been asking everyone I've talked to for the movie this same question:
Is there something distinctive about the Bay Area scene? Do you think there a certain dialect of this music that's only spoken around here?
I think you ask that because to a certain extent you know that there is a unique quality to the Bay Area scene. I was explaining to someone the other day that the nice thing about west coast music in general -- with the exception of certain hotbeds of corporate music, like Hollywood or LA -- is that people are willing to share information a lot more freely than they are in other urban centers around this country like Chicago or New York. Bay Area musicians are more likely to call their friends and call their acquaintances and say, "Hey, there's a new venue opening, you should go talk to so and so and go play there." In other parts of the country that would be a big guarded secret.
Also, musicians from a wide variety of genres cross-pollinate their music much more freely in the Bay Area. You might go to a concert and see not just free improvisers, you'll see free jazz players, classical musicians, maybe an indian or japanese musician all playing on the stage, sometimes at the same time in the same piece! You see that a lot more often than you see that anywhere else. I think the Bay Area is a bit of a magnet for people who are interested in exploring in a much more free way and not having systematic approaches to things, although we've also had composers come out of here who've had a very systematic approach to music. But you've got people like Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and John Cage spending time here.
There's a different feeling to the music, and a feeling to the world surrounding the music, an emphasis on fellowship as opposed to careerism. In fact I think that that's one of the reasons that a lot of the Bay Area musicians aren't known so well outside the Bay Area, because they're more interested in the music, and in the process of growing in music, than they are getting their name around the country or the globe.
That's not to say that we're not all tied in with other musicians: in fact a lot of us, because we're on the Pacific
Rim, get to Japan a lot easier than we get to Europe. But with CD's and now the internet and mp3's people can experience Bay Area music really easily.
And the lifestyle here is so wonderful, you have to wonder why you would move to another urban center to make a career of it when you're going to starve anyway, even the best of all worlds.
I'm thinking of that Dorothy Parker quote: "Once you've decide you're going to be miserable, there's no reason you can't have a reasonably good time." It doesn't apply exactly, but my point is that when people have given up on the idea that they're going to make any money on their music, that gives the whole thing a very different flavor.
It does take a lot of pressure off. Eventually you realize that a good year may be one in which you get a small grant, or perhaps you'll put a record out that people really like. But that's only going to last a short amount of time and you really have to hustle, and so if you're going to live somewhere and have to hustle, why not live in a place that's beautiful and has a really open atmosphere?
I think a lot of people do feel that they're able to get things happening from here, and I think they do it in such a relaxed way, in such a natural way, that their music has a vitality and an originality that sometimes you don't see from careerists.
To be a careerist you have to have a schtick, or a gimmick, and you have to hang on to one thing, to keep it going. You see new music or free jazz people who get a schtick and it starts to sell and they stay there, they're trapped.
Perhaps some people would say we dabble too much in too many things -- I don't think
that's necessarily the case, but that could be a criticism that might be applied to us: you don't have a direction, you guys are directionless, west coast hippies --
I have heard criticism like that. I remember Marco Eneidi (who doesn't live in the Bay Area anymore, by the way) -- complaining that there is not enough intellectual rigor to the scene here, that there are too many of these gigs where everybody just shows up and they haven't played together before and they just noodle around.
I've seen Marco in ad hoc situations himself that have been much more interesting and intriguing than the ones with the band he normally plays with. Being uncomfortable in a situation sometimes goosed him into playing in ways that he wouldn't normally play and got him to a new level. I think that works to all of our benefits at certain times.
But I used to have that same feeling -- in fact, when I moved to England, I think one of the reasons I was drawn to study with AMM was because they had been together for a couple decades, because I thought being in a group and knowing how each other plays is very important. But then as I began to play in ad hoc situations, with people I didn't know, or people I knew just a little bit, I began to see that there's a certain beauty and an organic growth that happens that you don't get when you're in the same ensemble all the time.
I've never thought of it this way before, but it occurs to me that this community of musicians we have here, who are constantly playing together in many different combinations over the years, really has something of the character of one group which has been together for a long time.
Absolutely, I think it's a family, and in that way it's more natural and organic because it's a lot like life.
We get together and instead of just getting together and going to the bar and drinking, we get together, go to the bar and play!
Which is a healthier thing to do than just sitting around listening to the jukebox, why not play and enjoy yourself and make music? It's really about the activity of music making, and I think some of the best improvisers and the best musicians have that joy of music making, they haven't lost it in looking for a career, looking to be the greatest musician on the planet. Those who are the greatest sometimes just love playing music so much, and they just do it really well, they don't have to get paid to play -- they enjoy getting paid to play, and if they make it a career they feel like they need to get paid -- but they can also make music, for music's sake. And I think that's one of the best things about the west coast is you can get together with people, make music for music's sake, audience can come or not come and it's okay.
It's just one way of working among others: I mean sometimes you want to do a special project that has a particular direction, maybe it's a band, maybe it's an opera, maybe it's a specific composed piece, for you maybe a Hub piece or something like that. But there are these other social reasons to get together and make music that can be just as successful aesthetically.
I think our scene tends to think of the community as being the community of players. What is the role of the audience in this community?
I think of the audience as a potential collaborator in the musical experience. There have been times that people have come to see groups that I've been in over and over again, and they start taking an instrument up and pretty soon they're collaborating in the scene, and the next thing I know I'm playing with them on stage, over the course of several years. The presence of the audience does change it quite a bit -- they are kind of part of the improv, which is why it is quite a bit different to do it onstage than to do it in our living rooms.
There is a more primal quality to the performer/audience relationship here than elsewhere, I think. Jacques Attali has written about how there has been an evolution in history away from the tribal circle way of thinking about music towards a spectacle, where there arises a huge separation -- in commercial music it's an absolute separation! -- between the audience and the players. But you're describing a scene that is more tribal, and has a very fluid line between the audience and the performer.
Absolutely, especially when we do something like the Potluck Percussion thing.
Would you describe that?
That's where people in the audience are asked to bring things for the musician, me, to play.
I don't bring any instruments, I may bring some sticks and mallets but I only play what the audience brings. Well, they're now part of the action because they've brought stuff and put it in front of me and sometimes I ask them to hold it while I'm playing it. The last time we played I got some antlers and I got a big globe that goes over a light and I had somebody hold it and somebody gave me a fire extinguisher, and I was firing the fire extinguisher into the globe and so on...
So now that person that's holding it is part of the performance, and everyone around us to a certain extent is part of the performance because they're close enough to the action that things will hit them. And I think that's not necessarily a bad thing.
We have to go inside cause I'm freezing my-
okay, I suppose we're done. Did you grab my lens cap?
I did, before the squirrels did, and buried it.
(c) 2005 Tim Perkis home
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