While exploring many different sounds and concepts, your jazz compositions maintain strong roots in the big band tradition. What’s the relationship between tradition and experiment in your music?
Tradition is never anything static. Tradition is important to study, to understand and to fully grasp, but it can never replace or be a surrogate for your own artistic identity and originality. While I respect tradition, I am not a traditionalist. I’m an experimentalist. I utilize tradition as inspiration and catalyst for my own personal artistic explorations that seek to transform culture and society, not reinforce or reproduce either.
For example, in my big band writing, I employ a lot of traditional ‘tropes’ but at the same time, metamorphosize them with odd-meter grooves, 16-tone harmonic writing (beyond the 12 tone), George Russell’s lydian chromatic concept applied to orchestration, etc.
Something of a controversy among people who read this site: the use of extended techniques. What’s your approach to using them in a way that’s organic to the music?
Technique is only a tool to express the imagination and the soul. It is never the be-all and end-all. Extended techniques should only be employed, not to “show off”, but to express beyond the lineaments of the conventional and the known in quest of the unknown.
I have developed a lot of my own personal extended techniques as a baritone saxophonist from inspiration of “world musics”, ie., non-western sources, eg., trying to play the single-reed horn as a double-reed instrument.
Having composed for opera and symphonies as well as jazz, how do you manage to work in these rather different genres? And how do you approach collaborating with a diverse array of artists?
I don’t see styles as any parameters. This is very contrary to the dogmatic rigidity of canonical constructions. I love and eat Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Thai and Caribbean foods, just as I enjoy and engage in those musical traditions and forms. Musical expression, like sex, as Alexandra Kollantai maintained, should be as easy and as uncomplicated as drinking a glass of water.
I pick my collaborators based upon the following criteria:
- They aren’t self-destructive, aren’t alcoholics, aren’t cigarette-smokers, and are people with integrity and are professionally reliable.
- They have kick-ass abilities both managerially, administratively, organizationally, and artistically.
- I can see myself being friends for life with them.
While your compositions embrace a variety of influences, your aesthetics seem to put universality at their core. This has a different vibe than the postmodernist feel of most new music or the identity politics guiding most oppositional movements. How do you approach the question of universality in your music and politics?
Music making is intrinsic to being human. As far as I can ascertain, bees don’t make music. Nor do other mammals, though I do believe that our music can be a form of inter-species communication. When I was practicing at 12 midnight in the mountains of Woodside, California while attending the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, I knew I had reached the altissimo ranges of my horn beyond human hearing when the coyotes would join me and howl with me. When I didn’t play in those altissimo ranges, they didn’t howl.
I reject post-modernism because I do believe there are essentials, that there are grand narratives (eg., capitalism, colonialism, imperialism), and I believe in personal and political agency (we make choices and either act or don’t act upon them).
Humans are a part of nature, and we have an interdependency with everything in the cosmos, hence our actions are universalizing, meaning, like the butterfly effect, our vibrations emanate far beyond our intentions.
There is a real sense of optimism in your music, your politics, and in your person. This is a welcome contrast to the fact that most music today is about reflecting on our world as it is rather than harnessing energy towards changing it. Where does this optimism come from, and how have you maintained it all these years?
My optimism comes from losing all fear. I don’t fear for a career, I don’t fear for attention, recognition and support. I don’t fear for the loss of my life because during my brutal 5 year cancer war, I was supposed to be dead several times, and I had come to accept suicide at least 3 times. I am still alive, though with immense physical losses and constant challenges, but gifted with new creativity and philosophical understanding that enables me to see beyond corners and the limits of most humans. I understand that the gift of prolonged life for myself means that I have more to do with my mission on this planet: to do the music/art and politics that no one else can or will do. I lost the ability, for example, to have sexual intercourse from the many surgeries, irreparable nerve damage, etc., but I have found new and more profound ways to make love and to enjoy love. I have lost all fear and while depression remains a threat from the hammering of my body from the cancer war, I have been able to channel it towards the challenges of my mission on earth, one of which is to create a new performing arts economic structure.
For more info about Fred Ho’s projects, writings, and events visit http://www.bigredmediainc.com
Alexandra Kollantai, Big Band, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Fred Ho, George Russell