Interview With Jazz Thereminist Eric Ross
Ross is an accomplished composer and performer from Binghamton, New
York. A multi-talented musician, he plays piano, guitar, synthesizers,
and theremin. He has performed at such venues as the Lincoln Center,
Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland, and Berlin Jazz Festivals,
Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts, Copenhagen New Music Festival, and
Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Ross' message is clear. He
is paving the way to a new frontier by producing new, interesting,
captivating sounds via his compositions. This May he will be performing
live in Europe again.
How did you begin playing music both initially and professionally?
I started playing piano at seven years old. When I got to college,
I started playing in a lot of kinds of music jazz, rock, blues, folk,
classical and avant-garde. I started playing guitar when I was around
nineteen. When I got out of college I still wanted to continue playing
music seriously and concentrate on finding my own voice and identity.
So, I went into a number of studios and studied electronic music.
In about 1977 I felt confident enough to come out and start playing
my own music exclusively. I've been doing that for the last 25 years
or so. I look back on it as a wide and varied type of experience that
enabled me to eventually focus in on exactly what I wanted to do.
You have been performing for about thirty years now. When did you
begin composing your own tunes?
Probably when I was about 18/19 years old. But I really didn't begin
to hit my style until about ten years later.
What is your attraction to music?
Everybody has a certain aptitude, a certain affinity. I felt that
music allowed me to do something that would be creative, expressive,
and reach other people.
How do you describe your compositions and performance style? What
is the atmosphere you are looking to create?
In each of my compositions I'm trying to write something and play
something new, something that's never been heard before. The pieces
that I've been performing in the last few years are a combination
of both written and improvised music. Around fixed ideas, I like to
leave enough space so that the players, or myself, can improvise and
add our own feelings, emotions, colors, and ideas to the moment. I
like to create an atmosphere that's almost magical or mystical. There
is an element of risk involved in it because I don't always know what's
going to happen next, so I must be creative and adaptable.
What lead you to compose this type of music?
With all the various types of music that I have been playing what
interested me the most was when the music was able to express something
very new and unexpected. I think this is part of the reason I got
into electronic music. Electronics, when I first started getting involved
with it, was a totally new palate. There were sounds there that nobody
ever heard before.
Tell us about your work with the Theremin.
I first started playing the Theremin around 1976. I realized it was
a serious and difficult instrument to play well. With a lot of work,
by 1982, I was able to use it on my first solo album, "Songs
for Synthesized Soprano". This album was my first breakthrough
and I think the Theremin, which was quite rare at that time, helped
to get it out. It was definitely something different. Around this
time I met jazz trumpeter and thereminist, Youseff Yancy, he'd worked
with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, among others. We began
a long collaboration including performances at Lincoln Center and
the Berlin Jazz Festival. Also in 1982, I met and became personal
friends with the great virtuoso of the Theremin, Clara Rockmore. She
felt the Theremin was a serious instrument, not just a fad or a gimmick,
and deserved a spot in the orchestra as a serious instrument. I try
to maintain that respect and attitude myself. In 1991, I met and played
for Professor Lev Theremin himself, during the making of the award-winning
movie of his life, "The Electronic Odyssey of Leon Theremin".
These artists inspired me to continue using the Theremin as a voice
in my own compositions.
Whom were you most influenced by?
I've always tried to listen to everything, but I like the music of
the early 20th century and a lot of non-traditional music. I've been
influenced by visual artists, impressionism, expressionism, and abstraction
as well. Of course, I like all the modern jazz guys, like Miles Davis,
John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Ornette Coleman. But I knew
early on I wanted to find my own identity in music and not be unduly
influenced by anyone.
Do you see your music as an extension or continuation of the music
that emerged in the 20th century?
Both. I've drawn upon many sources, classical, jazz, blues, rock,
non-Western, avant, electronic, and other various other kinds of music,
so there is continuity. But, at the same time, I've been interested
in moving on and creating something new and different. That's where
my heart is and where I've found my niche in music.
I know that you project the video art of your wife, Mary, during
your concerts. How would you describe the multi-media role in your
performance? How does it associate with your music?
I started working with multi-media early on. I was always interested
in it. I thought of the video as another line in the score. It is
like a visualization of what I'm doing musically. Mary's work seems
to fit very well with what I'm doing because it's non-literal, non-narrative
What kinds of venues have you been featured in? Would you say that
your familiarity with the business affected the types of places you
Music and business are two different words. You can play really well
but if you don't take care of the business aspect, you'll be playing
in your room. I think I've been successful in a non-traditional approach
because I have had a different style to offer. Early on I played a
lot of places and realized that some of them weren't really ideal
situations because people are not there to listen to the music. That's
part of the reason I went into studios. When I came out [of the studios],
I looked at colleges, museums and art centers. Almost immediately
after coming out and playing in the States a little bit I got some
offers to play in Europe. When I got over there it was a whole different
atmosphere because there were centers that were interested in presenting
new art. Then in the late 80s/early 90s I began to play some of the
bigger jazz festivals in Europe. And found that people were really
receptive to what I was doing. In June I'm playing a big solo concert
at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. I'm really looking forward
You are about to embark on yet another European tour in May. What
kinds of shows are you scheduled for overseas?
6 concerts in 13 days in 4 countries. It's a mix of concerts, but
most of them will include Mary's videos.
Eric Ross will be performing:
May 15th in Rotterdam, NL at the New Music Festival
May 16th in Brussels, BE at the Musee d'Instruments
May 20th Amsterdam, NL at the CEM studio
May 23 in Heidelberg, GE at the DAI Jazz Fest
May 25th in Amsterdam, NL at the Stedelijk Museum, VPRO Dutch Radio
stationconcert and recording
May 26th in Bergen NO at the Nattjazz Festival
June 8th in Washington, DC. Millenium Stage. Kennedy Center for