Chicago-based James Falzone is a composer, clarinetist, and educator. He recently founded the Renga Ensemble, which features six highly regarded avant garde reed players: James on Bb and Eb clarinets; Ken Vandermark on Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Keefe Jackson on tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, contra Bb bass clarinet; Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Ben Goldberg on Bb clarinet, contra Eb alto clarinet; and Ned Rothenberg on Bb clarinet, alto saxophone, and shakuhachi. On the eve of the release of the group’s debut recording, The Room Is, and subsequent tour, we talked to James about what makes him and his music tick.
All those reeds! What was the genesis of the Renga Ensemble?
I’m drawn to the artisanal, to individuality, and the voice that sounds like no other. This is true across a wide spectrum in my life–from visual art to film to food–but finds its logos in the music I make.
The Renga Ensemble was conceived around two axes: an all-reed sextet that would feature clarinets and be made up of players who possess highly individual approaches to sound and improvisation. I made a list of players who filled these criteria and Ned, Ben, Ken, Jason, and Keefe were on the top of that list. Bringing them together in an ensemble and composing music that alternatively compliments and frustrates their individuality has been truly special. We spent a fantastic week together in April 2013, culminating in recording The Room Is. Now we head out on the road for nine days where the music will take new shape.
The music you have created for Renga is both composed and improvised. How do those methods meld for you?
The line between the composed and the improvised is thin for me, a filament I can see through. I think of improvisation as a compositional tool, a way to organize material, not an “add on” for people who like that sort of thing. I’m particularly interested when this filament becomes porous, when the line gets so thin that a listener (perhaps even the player?) is not fully conscious if they’ve crossed over. This gets philosophical for me, even metaphysical, in that I think of composition and improvisation as representing aspects of existence. We walk in the known (composed) and the unknown (improvised) at the same time and I like music that offers a sense of this mystery.
You teach at Columbia College Chicago and are a fellow at The Center For Black Music Research. How does that fit in your artistic life?
Growing up, I often heard that you were either an artist or a teacher–the two were mutually exclusive. I came out of graduate school at New England Conservatory with that mindset but found myself, through happenstance and financial need, standing in front of a music theory class at a small liberal arts college. Over a terrifying year (those poor students!), I realized that I loved teaching, that I had an affinity for organizing ideas in a teachable way, that my passion for music was contagious, and that teaching complimented my artistry in surprising and instructive ways. These days, 12 years after first stepping into a classroom, I balance active artistry with full-time teaching and have put aside the notion that the two are mutually exclusive.
We hear many different musics in your work. Where does it all come from?
From an early age, I’ve been exposed to a wide swath of music and, to the extent possible, have trained myself to play it. Though I recognize stylistic differences and vernaculars, I’m smitten by the elemental sameness of seemingly disparate kinds of music. These similarities are often aesthetic in nature, not theoretical or sonic. So, to me, the same elements that undergird the music of Messiaen are found in Albert Ayler, are found in Sufi devotional music. Yes, they sound different (for sure!), but I’m interested in their intentionality and means of communication. In this realm I hear kinship.
You’ve gathered a lot of your activities under the banner Allos Musica. How does that serve your artistic objectives?
Functioning as an artist in contemporary society can be treacherous. Every artist needs to find ways to carve out space that feels ethical, so that they can placard their work but not become myopic and lose perspective of the things that matter. My answer to this tension has been to be fairly DIY and make contexts in which I can do what I want to do. To this end, I started my own record label which is now on its 10th release, have formed several ensembles and take them on the road as often as possible, and travel as a solo artist and educator. I put all this under the umbrella of Allos Musica, which means “other music,” as a way of collecting what can seem a little eclectic. There are many ways to organize a life in music, some perhaps easier, but this has been my way.
The Renga Ensemble embarks on a nine-city tour at the end of February, 2015:
February 26: North Central College, Naperville, IL
February 27: Constellation, Chicago, IL
February 28: Kerrytown Concerthouse, Ann Arbor, MI
March 1: Bop Stop, Cleveland, OH
March 2: Hallwalls Arts Center, Buffalo, NY
March 3: Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, Easthampton, MA
March 4: Roulette, Brooklyn, NY
March 5: Ars Nova Workshop, Philadelphia, PA
March 6: Creative Differences Series, Baltimore, MD