Mincek Meets Cymerman*
Alex Mincek and 5049 Podcast's Jeremiah Cymerman
On Wet Ink
JC: I’m constantly amazed by how many organic ensembles now exist in New York that devote themselves to new music. Those personal relationships that develop must allow for a sense of trust in each other’s ideas that is utterly unique.
AM: That’s actually a hugely important topic, because if you [are working] with musicians who don’t know you that well, there’s this idea that if you give them something that doesn’t work it’s because you’re incompetent, rather than that you were trying something and might have missed—a calculated risk. When you work with people who trust you, you feel like you can go a little bit further, because if you miss the mark, they’re not going to think you’re an idiot; they’re just going to tell you that it doesn’t work. Then you can rein it in and figure out how to make it work.
When I’m working with people I’m closer with, I might send them something and say, “I don’t know if this works,” because I know I’ll be able to figure that out and they’ll allow that kind of space for things to maybe be unsuccessful at first because I’m trying something new.
JC: So, in your experience, how have you seen your work develop when you know you have that working relationship?
AM: I just go down two different streets, so to speak, which is when I’m writing for an ensemble that needs to have something that works, I have enough of a vocabulary, compositionally, to make a piece where I really know what it’s going to sound like. I might take smaller risks in those kinds of pieces versus when I have time with an ensemble I know very, very well. In those instances, I’ll take much bigger risks and try things that I don’t necessarily know how they’re going to turn out, and I see both practices as kind of mutually beneficial. They’re not exclusive. I like writing for ensembles that I don’t know all that well, too. It’s just a different experience.
JC: Let’s go to the origin of Wet Ink. When did it start?
AM: Wet Ink started just after I finished my undergraduate degree at Manhattan School of Music.
JC: Studying performance or composition?
AM: I was studying performance. I had just gotten my degree in jazz and commercial music on tenor sax. And, myself and another saxophonist, Sam Hillmer, teamed up with trombonist Jacob Garchik and percussionist Dan Weiss and another saxophonist, Andy Noble. We didn’t really know what it was going to be. It was more like a symposium, almost: a group where we kind of got together to talk strategy about how to find gigs, aesthetic issues, issues of categorization, and genre and all these things, because that’s what we were all wrestling with at the time.
Then what happened was—this is almost not worth mentioning—we formed a sax quartet, doing a little bit of everything, and, if I remember right, we called that the Wet Ink Sax Quartet, but this lasted—when I say I shouldn’t even bring it up—we did two shows. We played in a bar once and a concert at Manhattan School of Music. So, it lasted a month. Sam and Andy and I were all in that quartet, and we were also part of this other thing—this symposium that I mentioned—and that [symposium] became Wet Ink.
The first version of Wet Ink as presenting organization was in 1998. We started presenting shows, not as an ensemble, but we would split bills with our friends. We were doing that for a while, and then we wanted to do something more ensemble driven so, in 2000, that’s where Zs came from. And, Sam [Hillmer] and I were both in Zs, so it was happening in parallel with Wet Ink.
Zs started taking on a life its own, quite different from Wet Ink, and the members started differing in terms of lifestyles. I was getting more and more attracted to so-called concert music. I wanted to do less playing, or at least a different type of playing, and I wanted to spend more time being in a place and writing music for different ensemble combinations. I mean, Zs—the sextet as a core group—was really cool, but it was kind of hard to write for, too: two saxes, two guitars, two drum sets. It was just limiting in terms of the dynamic threshold, which we challenged a bit. Anyway, I just kind of felt like I had written my Zs pieces and would rather write some other things. I wanted to write solo music, orchestra music, various sized chamber music, so I got more invested in Wet Ink and Sam stayed really invested in Zs, and it just led to a kind of natural fracture at some point.
That was in 2005, and that’s when Wet Ink—with a new kind of crew of members—became an ensemble.
JC: And, that was conscious…
AM: Yes, because, in a way, [before that time] Zs was kind of the Wet Ink house band. If Wet Ink was curating, then Zs was what they were presenting. With the exit of Zs, we became an ensemble and presented ourselves.
JC: Was the idea to seek commissions or to be the primary composers?
AM: Both. We wanted to function as a kind of new music “band” in the same way that Zs is a band. We were writing and playing for ourselves in a pretty open sense—there was still a top-down kind of hierarchy of the composer composing the score, but there was a lot of communication and back and forth input from throughout the group, and then we were commissioning other composers and interpreting other people’s works.
JC: I’m always fascinated by something existing without it being asked to exist.
AM: [Laughing] Right.
JC: Specifically with music. Specifically with ensembles. When you think back to that time period, what were some of the signifiers that you were on to something and were moving forward?
AM: Well, the beautiful thing about very early Wet Ink and Zs is that there were no signifiers. Someone else interviewed me about this and asked, “Where was your music getting played?” and I had to answer, “My music wasn’t being played!” There was no kind of name recognition, and I mean that not only with the ensemble but with any of its constituents. We got zero press, and when we did, it was minimal: a mention in Time Out or something like that.
We just thought we were on to something. I think in both of those groups there was really strong [mutual] respect throughout and a feeling of “Wow, this person’s no joke.” There was a palpable sense of being around people who were going to be something—that were on to something.
With Wet Ink, even when it matured into its ensemble form, the same thing was true. It was so undeniable that you were around really bad-ass high-level, high-thinking…just at every level people were thinking at the top. That was kind of enough. And, you just stick with it. I mean, we’re still a very marginalized group, but within that margin, we’ve established an identity.
Tradition in Jazz and Concert Music
JC: You come from a jazz background.
AM: That’s right.
JC: Engaging with the tradition is one of the central elements of that music, I think. As a performer of contemporary music, do you feel yourself connecting in a similar way to composers or instrumentalists or certain recordings?
AM: All of those. And one thing I’ve thought about recently is that in the new music community—as far as I’ve experienced it—there’s a notion of novelty that seems very important to everyone. People should be experimenting and doing new things and if you’re derivative in any way—and everyone fails at that so I don’t even mean derivative in a bad sense—but there’s a sense that you don’t want to be derivative. You want to be doing something new.
I have a different take on that and I think it has a lot to do with my jazz background. I learned music from trying my hardest to emulate my heroes. So, when I was into Lester Young, I spent all this time transcribing Lester Young solos and trying not to just learn the notes, but to sound like Lester Young and really get into what it means to play like Lester Young. And, I think I take that approach with composition. When there’s a composer who I’m interested in, I really want to live in that world, and not only know the scores, but really get into the concepts and ways of thinking. I’m into getting inside a composer’s world for a while. And, some of that ends up in my music. I’m not shy about that. I think of it very dialogically. I have something to say, but if I’m interested in a certain composer, I want to enter into an aesthetic conversation with them. So, I’ll use their ideas in tandem with or in parallel with what my ideas are on that same subject, and that’s been a way of working for me.
JC: If you listen to enough Lester Young, for instance, you’ll start to hear the same licks on different recordings, and I imagine it’s the same for composers like Morton Feldman or Iannis Xenakis. If you listen enough, you’ll start to recognize chords or gestures that recur.
AM: That’s definitely true and—as has been noted by performers who I work with a lot—that happens in my pieces, too. There’s a kind of little collection of objects that basically occur in various constellations from one piece to the next. You add to or subtract, and so you end up having a slow evolution of that collection.
JC: Sitting down with pencil and paper to relate your ideas to a bunch of performers goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. Do you ever feel daunted by that tradition?
AM: I would say that I only feel that kind of institutional and historical weight when I’ve worked with orchestras. It’s just such a different thing. It’s such a different reason for being. In the past hundred years, there’s been an attempt by all these composers to kind of liberate the orchestra from itself or from its historical mannerisms, but that’s problematic for me because it’s almost like implementing freedom on another country, if I can make a rough political parallel. It’s like “this country doesn’t want our freedom, so maybe we should leave them alone.” That’s kind of how I feel about the orchestra. I have this thing that I want to do and have an idea of how I want an orchestra to musically behave, but they are a little community and these communities don’t really want my version of how they should behave. I think that’s perfectly fair. And so, that becomes the difficulty—how to work with an orchestra and balance what I want to express musically without blowing up the reason that they want to play in an orchestra.
JC: The saxophone is not so ubiquitous in classical music.
AM: In new music, it’s becoming ubiquitous for all the reasons that it was designed for: it’s powerful, it’s agile, it has a lot of different timbral capabilities. But, because in the last 100 years it’s been so culturally identified with commercial and jazz music, it has this association that’s hard to shake. I lean heavily on it for all the abilities I just mentioned, but because of that association, it’s difficult for me to work with. For a lot of people’s ears, and I hate to presume too much, but as soon as they hear the saxophone, they think “jazzy,” and I really try to steer clear of that; not because I don’t like that world that it comes from, but because I don’t want it to become a kind of knee-jerk reaction to an instrument.
There now seems to be this interesting meeting between saxophonists coming from a predominantly jazz background and classical saxophonists who were more or less trained in an early 20th century French manner of playing. I think people from each of those paths are playing a lot of the same music that meets in the middle. That’s where I see myself, and so I’m often playing in a section sitting next to somebody who grew up playing as a so-called classical saxophonist, and we’re having to do the exact same things, and it’s interesting because we can both do these things, with, perhaps, the approach to sound as the biggest hurdle between the two worlds.
JC: In the last 50 years or so, there’s become a nice collection of intensely brilliant composers who use the saxophone as their main instrument: Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Ornette Coleman. There are plenty of people who have the sax as their instrument.
AM: Even, and I didn’t know this initially, but German composer Mathias Spahlinger, who was a hero of mine before I knew this, was a saxophonist.
JC: But you don’t write at the saxophone…
AM: No, but the saxophone is a model for my music in a way. There are just certain sounds that I arrive at on the saxophone and can then just think of them more abstractly—as being distributed to a lot of different instruments. That’s not necessarily writing at the saxophone, of course, but there’s also the concrete notion of multiphonics on the instrument, which I use quite directly by understanding how the harmonic and non-harmonic spectra of a saxophone multiphonic creates an interesting sound or timbre. So, I’ll use those sounds both literally and as models. I’ll figure out the constituent parts and what the ratios are [in the multiphonic] and can then construct virtual multiphonics [through orchestration] from the concrete ones that exist on the saxophone.
JC: I feel like the more compositional chops one develops, the more they can articulate intense or extreme music. For example, the way that [Iannis] Xenakis cracks music open and maybe doesn’t really put it back together.
AM: Right. I think you’re spot on with Xenakis, but I don’t know if I’ve figured out exactly yet—of course his music is viscerally direct—but when I think of a piece like [Igor] Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I think of a piece that everyone still recognizes as pretty avant-garde. And, to me, the opening bassoon solo is as terrifying as any other part of the piece. It’s not bombast. It’s not dissonance. It’s just because it challenges a way of thinking so directly: The bassoon should not be playing in that register. That’s not its role. So, from the opening notes of that piece of music, Stravinsky is saying that social orders are no longer. The identity you think you are bound to is completely open. That doesn’t manifest itself immediately to most people. He also masks it through the narrative of the piece—having to do with a pagan ritual—by having it sound like a foreign instrument. That’s why he uses the bassoon in that way, but at the same time it challenges what we believe. That’s what’s terrifying about that piece of music to me, I think. Social order is being called into question, but it’s not being thrown in your face.
It’s the same thing with Xenakis, but I haven’t figured out what, exactly, is so destabilizing about that music.
Performing as a Composer
JC: As a composer who writes for ensembles, including those you perform in (like Wet Ink), do you feel like your composer/performer balance is good?
AM: I’ve defined for myself what kind of performing I’m willing to do, and essentially I don’t want to do any solo playing. It’s not interesting for me. In the ensemble, once we started playing other people’s music, we would start receiving solo saxophone things or things where the saxophone was kind of a centerpiece. Those things I won’t do for two reasons. One, those are the things that take the most practice time to learn to do really well, and one of the reasons I like playing is to be around people, and so working on a solo doesn’t get me there [laughs]. So, it’s uninteresting to me from that standpoint. It takes too much time from my composing, whereas ensemble pieces are on a kind of rehearsal schedule. I know I’m going to be with other people, I know what hours of the day that’s going to be. It’s scheduled. I don’t do well with unstructured time unless I’m composing, so for me the relationship to the saxophone is that I’m going to do things with Wet Ink where we play my colleagues’ music, my music, or very select music from outside of our group where I know I can do a very good job within the time constraints that I’ve set for myself. That makes things very clear for me. I know I’m talking in logistics, but it’s important for me.
JC: There’s a very holistic approach to creativity in the modern world. There are people running their own organizations, collaborating, improvising, composing, interpreting other people’s music. And, I’ve always been of the feeling that as long as you are doing one of these things at a time, you’re engaged…
AM: Oh, totally [laughs].
JC: And, if you’re doing all of those things you’re deeply engaged.
AM: In the past few years I’ve had to present my music by talking about it at festivals and in front of groups. And, sometimes in those talks people ask me why I’m not doing more with, say, electronics. I have to say, “Well, I play the saxophone, I compose, I run an ensemble” [laughs]. At some point you have to pick things. You can’t do them all. So, that’s become the answer: “Well, because that’s one of the things I don’t do.” [laughs]. There has to be a boundary I draw of the things I can do before they all start suffering.
JC: Speaking for myself, I think it’s important to zero in on the things you are really interested in and then spending a lifetime getting better at them, and contributing something to them. That, to me, is the goal.
The Fearlessness of “Dumb” Composing
JC: Right now, I’m working on music for my own consumption only and have found it interesting, the freedom of adding an instrument that may never return or may never be clear why it was there in the first place: essentially making musical decisions just for my own enjoyment. I imagine it’s different, though, when you’re writing for an ensemble. I’m sure you have to be a lot more conservative.
AM: Yes and no. I actually had this conversation with a few of my friends. There’s a certain type of great composer, somebody like Beethoven or [Salvatore] Sciarrino or Feldman and Xenakis. Those are composers, for me, who are both obsessed with failing and, on the other hand, completely don’t give a fuck. I think the results are really good. What I mean by that is, there is just a confidence of “I’m going to do this, and who cares,” and at the same time there’s a sense of obsession with things that manifest a value that is good and correct somehow. They’re completely unruly and willing to fail, and then they’re also obsessed with not failing.
There are certain composers who want to be impressively smart through their music, and refined and crafty. And, there are certain composers who have that but are also willing to be dumb.
JC: Dumb? Or open?
AM: I’m using the term dumb to be provocative. I don’t mean dumb; I just mean that [they’re] not worried about concept. There’s something [inside them] that’s saying, “Who cares? I’m doing this just because.” But, on some other level, they’re obsessed by why this thing should be happening. I know I’m not being totally clear, but it’s a murky subject. This kind of vulnerability in showing that you can do something kind of silly or dumb or somehow artistically unvetted and then have this other side to yourself that is really meticulous. Somehow merging those is what I think of myself as being after and is an attribute that I perceive in these other composers—heroes of mine.
JC: As time passes, it’s easy to forget that composers like Cage and Feldman and Xenakis were working with organic materials, and there were varying levels of humility and willingness to let things unfurl naturally.
AM: Once somebody is gone, it seems like everything was always there, so you have to remember that they were pushing through to get to all these different pieces or periods or whatever, and that it was dynamic and organic.
* The full recording of Mincek Meets Cymerman is available for download with preorder of Alex Mincek: Torrent; the new CD from Sound American Publications. Get it HERE.