Rob Mazurek : The OFN Interview
Chicago Underground Duo: Chad Taylor (r), Rob Mazurek (l).
©Photo by Josh Wildman
At the forefront of some of the world’s premiere electro-acoustic improvisational ensembles, cornetist Rob Mazurek has traveled far from his inauspicious origins. His traditional bebop roots long behind him, Mazurek is one of the leading lights in Chicago’s new music scene. From the various incarnations of the Chicago Underground to sideman work with post-rock / indie icons Tortoise, Sam Prekop, and Jim O’Rourke, to name but a few, as well as the ever changing roster of his own bands, Mazurek qualifies as one of the Windy City’s preeminent movers and shakers.
Part-time expatriate Mazurek splits his time between his new home in Brazil with his Brazilian-born wife and the U.S., traveling back to the States for recording sessions and gigs. As such, Mazurek has attained an international presence on the creative improvised music scene. Stretching beyond categories and always in search of new sounds, Mazurek is an explorer.
On the heels of the Chicago Underground Duo’s new release In Praise of Shadows (Thrill Jockey), Mazurek took time out of his busy schedule to chat with One Final Note about living in Brazil, the longstanding Chicago Underground project, experimental sound, and the conceptual influence of horror movies.
Perhaps you could take a moment (for those unfamiliar with your discography) to briefly describe your current working ensembles?
Chicago Underground Duo-Trio-Quartet are still active with Chad and I as the central figures and a revolving cast of other players including Matthew Lux and Jason Ajemian—new record out February 2006 on Thrill Jockey Records, In Praise of Shadows. Exploding Star Orchestra is my new large ensemble featuring 14 Chicago blowers and shakers including Nicole Mitchell, Johnny Herndon, Ken Vandermark, Corey Wilkes, Jeff Parker, etc.—new recording will come out in the fall on Thrill Jockey Records. Sao Paulo Underground is a new group featuring Mauricio Takara on drums and computer programming along with a cast of excellent Sao Paulo musicians—new record released in May on Aesthetics Records, Sauna: Um, Dois, Tres. Tigersmilk, which is with Jason Roebke and Dylan van der Schyff, is an all improv group still going strong. Constant solo experiments including Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein Volume 2—Plumes of Blood, which will find a label shortly. Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein Volume 1 came out on the Mego label a little while back. Also compiling sound, art, video, etc. for an art box set of pieces from my residency at Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud this past year.
In a recent interview [in Cadence Magazine] Jeff Parker mentioned that he felt that Chicago was still highly segregated and so it was a bit of a challenge for musicians to break down these boundaries, at least on a logistical level. Have you noticed that there to any extent yourself?
I don’t like to speak in these terms. Exploding Star Orchestra, you could say, is populated by humans from all over the Chicago demographic. People have the chance to play with whoever they want. They only need to ask.
What principle differences are there for you between living in Chicago and Brazil?
I am more isolated here. I live in Manaus which is in the middle of the Amazon. I am five hours by plane from Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo has an atmosphere more like Chicago. In Manaus it is hot all year round. I have my banana trees and bird sounds and electric eels and storm systems and contact with various Indian tribes, the rivers, the forest, the danger. But, I practice, I write, I compose, I paint, I think. These things are similar, just a different color, a different smell, a different feel. I am quite enjoying it.
How has living in Brazil affected your musical outlook?
I have come into contact with various elements in various places that are constantly opening my senses to new things. There is a wonderful group of musicians, artists, writers, etc., that I have met in Sao Paulo that are keeping me on my toes. The environment of the Amazon has affected me deeply, as well as my time spent in Brasilia. Brasilia is all about architecture and minimalism and esoterica. The food in the Amazon is certainly a new experience. Jambu that makes your mouth numb, ancient fish from the Rio Negro, etc...
Do you have a working ensemble there that you play with?
Sao Paulo Underground is a special unit of humans who like to project sound in a similar fashion as I do. They come at the stuff with this beautiful, mystical, dangerous, and joyous way that seems to elevate normal ideas to profound floating things. Brazil is steeped in the idea of sound and melody and rhythm. As I said above, new record in May called Sauna: um, dois tres.
With the Chicago Underground Duo as the core vehicle for a variety of lineups, how often do you and Chad play live?
It depends on the year. We have done 100 shows in a year and we have done as little as 20 shows in a year. We have played together so long that time does not seem to exist for us anymore. We can not play for a long period of time and step on the stage and perform the most wondrous sound imaginable. It’s quite exciting and strange.
How have the Duo concerts been received compared to the trio, quartet, and larger versions?
People love the Duo. Sometimes we even sound larger than the other groups.
What is the composition versus improvisation level in the Duo like? And how are writing credits and responsibilities handled? Is it a 50-50 operation?
Basically 50/50. At times I write more and at times Chad writes more. It’s usually 50% pre-constructed and 50% improvisation.
How much does improvisation affect the actual writing of your pieces in the Duo as opposed to the pieces you write for your other ensembles? Are the written structures finalized before hand, or is there a “jamming” period?
Well jamming is a strange word. It’s a word that implies a lot of bullshit before you get to the point. I believe that Chad and I have played so many times together that our improvisations take on the character of written music. The second track on the In Praise of Shadows record is a long one-take improvisation that to me sounds as if it could have been composed. I think this is unique for us.
There is a heavy Gamelan influence on “The Glass House”. Is this a new found interest or perhaps something older?
This piece is Chad playing mbira on his floor tom, which gives this eerie reverb to the thing. It has to do more with Chad’s ongoing research into African music. I add the noise box that is being controlled by a drum machine.
The tribal, almost march-like cadences of “Cities Without Citadels” and the title track “In Praise of Shadows” have a very martial feel to them. I assume your feelings about out current political situation are still the same as they were when you recorded Slon?
Well yes, the political situation in America is getting worse and worse and possibly these tunes have a bit of the revolutionary about them but not so directly. The tribal cadences you are alluding to have more to do with Chad’s interest in African rhythm and my interest in the idea of cornet or trumpet or horn as a call to action or a warning signal. Back to the roots of the horn and drum and what they were probably first used for, communication in its simplest form.
Electronics play an important part of your music now. “Pangea” comes pretty close to the level of electronic manipulation and distortion you are using in Mandarin Movie. Beyond your own experimentation, are there any composers, artists, etc. that you find particularly inspiring?
Pita is always a wonder, Luc Ferrari is always inspiring (may he rest in piece), Milhaud, Sun Ra, Autechre, Fennesz, Tortoise...
Are you still painting? If so, do you find any connection between your visual art and your music making, or do you consider them two totally different disciplines?
I was under the impression that I was really finding something in this direction but as of the very latest I am not so sure. I have been painting with the idea of sound and vice-versa but am finding it harder and harder to realize this conception. I want to move more in the direction of layered film or video as a triggering device for sound, but very specific controls. Yes, I am painting and photographing and filming and distorting image and sound, sound and image, filtering and recording just the space around me with nothing else. My house and its surrounding green with its pulsing minimalistic sound is really fantastic. I am inspired by Stan Brakhage quite a bit right now. His films seem to me the closest to sound without sound.
I’ve read a bit about your light box installation projects. Could you describe what they are like?
I collect sound from a certain destination, I send the sound into the light box, the light is controlled by the sound, you do not hear the sound. It has a very simple beauty to it. I am conceiving a light box quartet at the moment using this simple premise.
What are you listening to now?
Pierre Boulez, 3 Piano Sonatas; Mahler, 5th Symphony; Liam Gillick’s soundtrack for the movie Capital by Sarah Morris; John Adams, Harmonium; Toru Takemitsu’s soundtrack to Double Suicide in Amijima; Cidadao Instigado, e o metodo tufo de experienceas; Roy Orbison, Love Songs; Fennesz, Live in Japan.
Are there any sideman gigs you’ve been on recently?
I played with this great band from Sao Paulo called Hurtmold.
I haven’t heard your Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein record, but was intrigued to read that the cover art was based on paintings of yours inspired by the work of Dario Argento. It’s not often that one comes across “jazz” artists who are interested in horror films, but I’ve also heard that trumpeter Roy Campbell is a horror fiend too. Do you see any obvious connection between these worlds?
My dream is to direct and compose the music for a horror story. I have a very short sketch of one that I made with a group called Troll/Protocal, which is a group of architects, sound artists, plastic artists, etc., working in the realm of mobility in certain spaces. My story includes a woman who is stalked by an imaginary psycho who lives on the top floor of a 5-star hotel turned squat in Brussels, Belgium. At the same time there is a parallel story about a trial at the house of justice (which is just down the street from the squat) about a serial killer and a strange outdoor elevator that takes passengers to the lower depths of the city. I think there are fascinating things to be found in many places. There seems to be plenty of things to learn from the dark side as well as the bright side and they probably intermingle more than we care to admit.
Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein, both Volume 1 (which came out on Mego a while back) and Volume 2 (which is ready and looking for a label) is a pretty literal translation in sound of the Mary Shelley story. Starting into “Body Parts” we then travel into “Electric Eels” symbolizing life of course and then volume 2 deals with “It Lives” into “Pondering” into “Plumes of Blood Part 1” into “Plumes of Blood Part 2” (with obligatory wedding/funeral organ march) into “Last Breath” and finally “Ascension”. I really like to think about the duality of things. I want to expand of course into way more than just two sides though. Triality-Quarality, etc... I do think that the way Argento edits has been an influence on the way I structure cornet solos. On In Praise Of Shadows I think you can hear this and especially on the Delmark release Silver Spines. Although on In Praise of Shadows I felt more in the realm of a Kabuki actor or an actor in a Japanese ghost story. That same kind of do or die delivery that fascinates me so much in these genres.