From Aural Innovations #24 (July 2003)
Free-improv and experimental guitarist Jeff Gburek is a well traveled soul. Raised in Buffalo, New York, he has also lived in New York City and now New Mexico, and has performed around Europe, Japan, and visited other countries across the globe. Jeff's music explores various points on the free-improvisational spectrum, from the somewhat accessible to the abstract, and in a diversity of configurations, but always rewarding the attentive listener with interesting sounds and passionate playing. Fans of all forms of experimental music will find much to enjoy in Jeff's sonic explorations, which communicate a sense of having been sculpted, as opposed to simply played. Having reviewed several of Jeff's projects and wanting to know more about his music and experiences, I conducted the following interview via cyberspace.
AI: How long have you been playing guitar and how did you get interested in playing these experimental/free-improv styles? Did you begin playing in "standard" rock bands? Did you hear an artist(s) that shook your world and veered you into more avant-garde directions?
Jeff Gburek (JG): My parents got me a tiny HEIT acoustic. I must have been seven. I'm forty almost, even as we speak. One of the first things I did with that guitar was lay it flat on the bed and drum on the strings with pencils, changing the tunings as I went along. I had a toy drum set before that. I came home one day and it was gone. I began later playing classical music, but really only wanted to play Deep Purple and Ballroom Blitz, etc. Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music led me to destroy my first amplifier. I wasn't shook by the eight-track though. Just intrigued to experiment. Only later did I find Metal Machine Music to be soothing. It would help me fall asleep, tormented by demonic hormones of the murky Buffalo (New York) summer nights. If I had to say something really turned me it was hearing my friend Rich Gross play. He could play banjo, guitar, all styles, play sax and clarinet and recorders, all with equal facility, and he had the Sun Ra, Braxton, Zappa, Cage and Mingus records. I got Braxton/Bailey duets from Russ Schoenwetter, this great drummer with thousands of records. That was something. Bailey then was extreme. I lost friends over Derek Bailey and punk rock. I got a cut-out of the Music Improvisation Company, an ECM lp with Bailey, Evan Parker and... I can't remember who else was in that group. But I played it for hours at different speeds, appalled that is sounded "right" any way you played it, even backwards. I was playing it backwards and forwards. This was just when people started doing that. But I had no beats running behind it. I loved how no matter where you dropped the needle on that record it could always be the beginning. And it was a music that, in my mind anyway, attached itself very easily to any other kind of music. I would create small Musique Concrete compositions backing that off against some Bambuti Pygmie music and some splices from TV like Star Trek and it always amazed me. I feel like this instance in my musical past is the one that keeps returning. Instrumental technique always seems to move in the direction of appropriating textures and sonorities heard in the world. This is probably due to mimetic instincts and the resonant structure of the ear. Hearing is echoing and reproduction of sound waves. So this revolutionary music of cut-ups - like the Burroughs/Gysin word experimentation - exerts an influence on my playing. Nowadays to play that way seems second nature. But it was not part of my family culture. It was not considered music in my neighborhood. Somebody though had the Chicago Live double album with Terry Kath, the guy who shot himself, doing a ten minute feedback guitar solo. I had to listen to it on the sly.
AI: So it sounds like you were introduced early on to avant-garde music and had no trouble encountering people with an interest in this music. At what point did you start performing live and what were these early experiences like?
JG: I wasn't ever introduced. It just found me. I had a curiosity to listen to anything. For live performance there was Tapeworm in Buffalo, the first anarcho-punk collective extended improv noise group I played with. That would be 10-20 people banging on all manner of things, tape loops, tubas, no holds barred. Exciting and unpredictable, at times completely transcendent. It was the uncarved block. There are cool tapes of that floating around. Would have gone over with a splash in Japan ten years later. Back then you either participated or fled. We lived in the East Side Afro Astro Black ghetto just back of my Polish East side ghetto. Local people would just walk straight into the house because it was so loud just to see what the hell was going on. I was in a punk funk band too but I proved too punk ultimately. I played bass in that group actually. I don't remember the name. But Tapeworm was mayhem I wouldn't see the like of again until I witnessed Caroliner Rainbow in Berkeley, CA at the Gilman Street project. Grux's mayhem was more organized of course but I don't think the first time audiences of either would have noticed the difference. Tapeworm had a collective mythology like Caroliner though but no one person authored it. Kenmore (NY) had this more suburban punk scene. Der Fuhmens was my favorite group in that Kenmore scene. There was Green Jello, Triangular Nelsons, Bulletproof Claudia, Gag Order, the Fems etc. All punk stuff basically, despite the art-oids involved.
AI: It seems like you've lived in a number of cities across the US. Which has proved to be the most fertile ground for performing experimental music?
JG: I don't find there is a uniquely fertile ground/community for experimental music. Except Berlin maybe. But Berlin is a many-headed beast. The community has to be formed on aesthetic kinships and sometimes just because you go somewhere where you think its happening doesn't mean it will happen for you there. The place kind of tells you what you can do. Great music happens where the attention to sound deepens. The music most important to me in Berlin is not that well documented. In NYC in the late 90's it was very clear how completely irrelevant music was. NYC was all about money and power. So if the music didn't fuse with the money/power music (like hip-hop) it couldn't go anywhere. Everyone plays in twelve configurations simultaneously and goes to three rehearsals a night, etc. There's no focus. The best music there is almost inaudible. I mean, experimental music was and probably is extremely marginalized. There was no strongly organized improv scene in San Francisco when I lived there ('85-'94, then again '96-'98.) although Mills was happening but I was not in that loop. We had lots of weird avant-garde industrial groups like SRL, the Haters, Iaocore, Big City and later the Molecules maybe, the Beatnigs, Thinking Fellers. From the south came Crash Worship. Henry Kaiser had expensive guitars in the Oakland hills somewhere and he would come down to the ocean and make sacrifices. Actually I lived down the street from Negativeland at 40th and Telegraph. I never saw them. Just like MC Hammer. I haven't heard from Ernesto (Diaz-Infante) in ages. If I moved back to SF I am sure the improv scene would disappear. Maybe it has already.
AI: Tell me about Orphan Sound System. I really like the free-improv sound that also seems to include some prog rock elements.
JG: Orphan Sound System came together in Florence, Italy. I shared an apartment with this painter, John Elmanahi, an Iraqi, the first I had ever met, and we drank Chianti and talked a lot and listened to Arabic music. He was a composition student at UCLA at one point. When I moved into his place we spent many hours listening to Stockhausen, Messiaen, Penderecki, Scelsi, Anti-Group, Schoenberg, Oum Khathoum, Nihkil Bannerjee, Nurse With Wound, SCG, loads of stuff I carted home from my trip to Istanbul, his trip to Morocco, lots of bizarre folk musics like Tarantella from Puglia, Bulgarian goatherd flautists, Pygmie music, Mingus, Tallis Scholars, Sun Ra, Basie, Bangra, Hermann Nitsch, whatever we had. It was like we were on a cultural Noah's Ark with all these cassettes, clinging to the last threads of our twisted version of human memory. He came home one night - we lived in this 14th century ex-convent on the via Guelfa - when I started the Radio Wide World project and he said he thought I had been blasted with radiation, that I was glowing. I was recording all these hetrodyning signals, listening to (and deciphering) the multi-lingual hydra-headed cries of etheric animals on the shortwave bands, a flickering votive candle in front of me and the humid Tuscan nights. Some kind of model for music came from that. No borders. A kind of utopia of pure sound energies extending from all wave forms inward/outward. We had already been playing music. Him on the oud, me on acoustic guitar, and whatever we could subvert to sonic ends. Tape collages, the stove (the baking pans, grills, doors, gas jets. It was always a dangerous group). My pal Halliday brought my electric bass from San Francisco and then we rescued this guy, another painting student, being strangled by a saxophone in the apartment below. He was a great drummer and it was a nameless quartet until I realized that Hal wasn't living in the same city with us. Based with Palumbo and Elmanahi in Williamsburg, I had to come and go with the exigencies of a graduate degree in San Francisco and fiancee in Montreal. We never thought of it as prog rock at all. We just played whatever we wanted to play. It was very deliberately and confrontationally eclectic. We'd do some textural playing and had developed a kind of score system based on textures and various concepts (like the "not-playing" concept which consisted of only playing, for example, the drums just above the drum-heads and cymbals but never really touching them. The more furious this "not-playing" became, there would result stray hits that sounded: this was the way we invented our way out of the habits and boxes and pastiches of styles that lots of new music falls into. Of course this stuff was extremely well received everywhere we played. I named it, the day Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died, Orphan Sound System, and no other name came up. The songs you heard on the CD "Meet the System" were really done in the twilight hours of the group. NYC destroyed us, worked its acid between our brotherly bonds. Elmanahi wanted to make films and Palumbo enrolled to study chemistry. Then I met Ephia and went to Indonesia. I came back thinking maybe we could pull the group together again. But it was not to be. One of the last things Orphan Sound System did was a New Years eve show with Godspeed [You Black Emperor] in Montreal, like a year before their big hit record.
AI: I read with interest about the combination of music and dance that characterizes Djalma Primordial Science. Would there have been an important visual element to the Djalma recordings I've heard that was missed by being limited to only hearing them?
JG: Djalma has been from the start a music and dance communication. An American composer, who grew up not far from where I am seated right now, Harry Partch I mean, iterated a concept that bugged me: "corporeal music". It bugged me because Western musical discourse is predicated on this idea of music being "abstract", that is intangible, and in a more Romantic era this would mean "more spiritual". Now, if you take the concept of spirituality away from art, what you have left is techniques rendering abstractions and the more 'educated' you are the more you can understand the increasingly esoteric music from serialism, angular contrapuntalism, minimalism, free improv ensembles right down to the current rage for the inaudible--right? We wanted to go against academicism in music and dance and Partch's sign pointed me out, like the scarecrow in OZ, in two directions. Well, it was a three way gun that didn't fire. We got music and dance back together but we had no interest in text... so we didn't unite it with theater at all, as was his intention. Oddly, this resulted in the NYC version of Djalma with me playing percussion, gamelan, the Lancelot and rebab etc., and Neel Murgai playing sitar and Persian daf drum. The only words were ones I and Neel invented while we played. I abandoned the guitar again and we lived in Harlem. We would be loading out for gigs and hauling out sitars and ouds and rebabs and gamelan instruments and the neighborhood kids would say things like "white people come up with the weirdest shit". So "The Rags Of Larium Pali" CD is comprised of two separate versions of this NYC era group, with Chris Forsyth, Rich Gross, Muriel Vergnaud and Drew Gardner. It was a clashing and contrasting of cultures but I would back you up to the Radio Wide World Experience I spoke of earlier, which made anything possible in music for me. It was what Western mystics called the center as circumference, all things flow inward/outward (I was the antennae, my body metals!) and what I started to call the mystical map, where one is the X that marks the spot, rather than the map of mystery, where you are seeking out everywhere in some external place the treasure X. The mystical map can never mislead you. After Orphan Sound System I wanted to play quieter music. I think we wanted to find a way to bring another kind of experience out than was available in clubs, something basically acoustic, communicative of wider spaces but at the same time completely jungle, desert, ocean, untamed, open, unpredictable. Ephia's dance was certainly a major part of it, although the recordings we released don't suffer, in fact they get haunted. But just a random recording of some show occasionally might leave you wondering what these long silences and/or extraneous sounds were all about. Like in Winston-Salem, Ephia started circling the performing area with a wheelbarrow she found outside and it was pretty comical for me to watch the audience's head going in circles as she got faster and faster. So obviously, things like that are not on an audio cdr.
AI: Is Djalma Primordial Science an extension of Djalma, or are the two distinct from one another? And tell me about the HALF-LIFE performance by Djalma Primordial Science that I read was to last from 18-36 hours.
JG: Djalma was always a mystical map, an attempt to create a culture unique to itself. So no matter where it is it will always be able to create itself anew. We call that site-specific work. We dug our work out of the earth for a year in Berlin to make a Holocaust memorial and now live in New Mexico to work on "Half-Life" (we have only been able to do an hour experiment toward this so far). But we went to Chicago and found Kyle Bruckmann to work with us. The name we have reflects transformation and so we transformed the name to include more descriptive terms: Djalma Primordial Science, Primordial Science Laboratories, Djalma Movement & Music etc etc. We performed in Berlin just on gamelan instruments in a nightclub. We did one show at a techno festival in Albuquerque. We always try to infiltrate ourselves and show something where it should not be. We did performances in traffic medians in NYC. We did ten hours in the middle of the desert and my instrumentation was only jute twine, tin cans and buckets I found out there. Butoh, which is not really a dance but more like physical theater expanding the whole body's perceptual fields, has helped push my music beyond formal concepts of music, so that is important to say here I think.
I'd say our approach to Butoh is Djalma Butoh and it shies away from all choreographies and works to help create fruitful improvisations. I provide live sound mixes from my field recordings in order to assist the consciousness of the dancer to travel deeper into the body/imagination. In Japan I had a vision that the body was the forest and the soul of a human being was one of those foraging red-assed mountain monkeys of Japan. We go out into the body to invite the soul back into it. The human is the divide. Beyond that I wouldn't venture to say more. Our next big workshop is the second annual retreat on THE LAND, an art-site and it runs for a week at the end of July. Check the web site for details.
AI: In an earlier email exchange regarding the variety of sounds you've produced, you made the comment that "it functions as an actual record of a research, as much social as it is musical". Could you elaborate on that?
JG: Well, on one level, the mixture of instruments was cultural cross-fertilization, hybridization, gene-splicing... whatever the metaphor we choose here, there were attempts at mixing different musical systems from far flung corners. Like Javanese and Balinese intervals different than Western ones, like the Partch intervals I put into my cans and bread-pan gongs were different than what Neel had on the sitar (the frets are adjustable however!) - which for all its very special sharps and flats and microtonal tics, is, these days anyway, the same as the Western standard system. I say Western "standard" because we are at the point where many modern Western composers have employed just intonation and alternative microtonal systems so the West has been breaking up, deviating via invention, as is the norm, I suppose, and precisely because of influence from traditional musics around the world, like gamelan and karnatic music, which challenged it. And in fact plenty of people from Eastern cultures now compose or play in Western and non-Western forms/styles so that this whole paradigm of polar oppositions is no longer so clear. These musical experiments I was involved in were not just abstractions of systems. The music was embodied by people. So it was an experiment in stretching the social and musical identities of the players. You'd be surprised at what resistance there was! There were certain players who hated the idea that I would tell them what the Javanese intervals were. Just that resistance to learning in an adult is very telling. That may have been an ego problem between us but that is also what I mean by the social experiment. That was a real limitation of growth potential in the music. Another player we worked with couldn't play pure noise: he always had to bring back recognizable motifs, to feel secure and not alienate the audience. So here was another socio-historical aspect: the person coming from the traditional pedagogy that to be a musician is to please the audience first. All of these and many more instances show us people's social and cultural limitations and these have an effect on what kind of music you can make. Among the European strain of improvisation in my generation there is a strong resistance to alternative instrumentation and to so-called "World Music" (a term introduced by Bob Brown at UCLA in the fifties, as he started the gamelan studies program there). This is mirrored in America in a strange way too. I've had people jumping down my throat because they thought I was suggesting that they throw away their Western individualism to play traditional and repressive styles emanating from backward cultural regimes unenlightened by democracy. Whereas what I was up to was merely a personal exploration of musical possibilities involving unique instruments, most of which you cannot hear over blaring saxophones, squealing guitars and full drum kits. On the other hand, the people most into World Music had no interest in more extreme forms of European improv, American free jazz and noise. So I was always vigorously mixing two oils to one water, as the poem of Cesare Vallejo goes. Well, anyway, to back up: the record of my pursuits: it's like a stratifigraphic map of the earth's crust: the recordings are fossils sitting in at certain levels of development. There is a slow evolution away from including elements that link the music to rock and pop in any way, an evolution away from "traditional" ways of playing (largely these days I play table-top or prepared guitar and I make recordings of machines, trees, bugs, water sources, birds, construction, and I mix these together with drones and noise from the guitar and contact miked objects) and in my feeling a path toward something that is more real and organic is opened, sounds of the earth, sounds of actual physical presences that shape our consciousness, forces that are not accepted as musical but which exert great power over us. I feel this is also a way of being a historian through music & sound. But that's a little like saying a fossil is a historian. But we are at a different level of evolution now and maybe can resolve that contradiction. What we are and what we all do is the story: not just (sorry) his-story, the one of the conqueror barbarians who think might is right.
AI: How did Zygoma come about? Did it form just while you were touring in Germany or did you go over there specifically to collaborate with Michael Vorfeld and Michael Walz?
JG: Michael Vorfeld is simply a major musical sensibility in my book. From the minute I heard him (I was still concentrating on percussion then) I was blown away by the clarity, precision and musicality of his noises. He too designed some of his own instruments. Michael Walz was perhaps my first friend in Berlin. He worked with Djalma, specifically helping with sound for our piece "Null Achtzehn" and there was a short-lived configuration with him and bassist Joe Williamson. We three had never played together until the Pankow session (session one, that is, because now there is Pankow II!) two years ago now. We made a small tour last spring, naming the group ZYGOMA and made some new recordings. I think there's a lot more good music to come from that collaboration.
AI: How did you hook up with Keith Rowe and how did your tour go? Will any recordings come out of it?
JG: Of course AMM has been a cause for wonder and deep questioning of what music is all about for many years for me. So when Keith was coming to Austin I had the desperation to drive 700 miles as he was not destined for New Mexico this time around. Through contacts in Austin we eventually turned the whole thing around and got him to come to New Mexico for a short run of gigs the next year with Djalma Primordial Science. In short, it was an immense pleasure to work with him. For me it was a big deal because his approach to table-top or flat guitar is particular, and what I had seen from others doing guitar this way did not lead me to speculate where Keith was at with it at this stage. It's hard to describe him but Tom Carter said, "he's like a guitar surgeon", and that stuck, because its like he's pulling sounds out of the body of the guitar and he's very precise and gentle about it. I am currently mastering one of the live recordings we made. As Keith said after one of his own performances, "I'm not sure whether or not it is music". And that sums up a crucial point about where I am at these days: I am most interested in the border between what we perceive as sound/noise and the consciousness of pleasure in sound that we then call music. There are culturally implicit concepts of form and also biologically conditioned ones, owing to the structure of the ear. All this comes into play in the improvisatory field when we question silence with our sounds and silence does not, at first, respond. I recall a story that Keith or some other AMM member was hearing someone in a restaurant slinging dishes around in the kitchen and saying "what if you could make music exactly like that?" The thing is: you can't. Unless you study how to. Or are a natural. But being a "natural"? What does it mean? Somehow it means it just happens out of you being you. But when you throw the dishes around you become self-conscious of rhythmic patterns falling into habits and immediate attempts to order your production of the sound. So you have to trick yourself away from those patterns. This all relates back to butoh because when that concept of the "anarchic body" hit me, it re-informed my whole sense of what music could be, what we were ignoring. What music wants as opposed to what we want with our culturally conditioned shapes and forms. I find endless fascination in the seemingly random patterns of nature, like rock formations, knots of trees, the sonic interplay of insects and airplanes, the quasi-homophonics in word roots of Proto-Indo European languages etc. The threshold between silence and perceived sound and all the sounds that surround us and become parts of our bodies because they are so omnipresent, these are inspirations for my music these days.
AI: How fertile is the ground for experimental music where you currently reside in New Mexico? It certainly sounds like you're doing a number of local performances.
JG: Not too many performances here. Only three for Djalma in the last year. Then some side projects. It's not super great, not super bad. We and a handful of folks make things happen. There is the land out here and that is the major attraction, a hugely varied geography, incredibly beautiful and desolate. Getting down with the dirt, elemental reality is necessary for butoh. We had a hard time breathing in Chicago, that subtle fear of taking full breaths, you know. The city takes the earth for granted while it disappears beneath our feet. But the cities allow for swimming in different cultures and access to life-changing weirdness. Albuquerque is a city, mind you. I hear people speaking Navajo and Tewa and Spanish in the laundromat. But we are thinking of moving to Amsterdam or Paris where they don't fly flags so much.
AI: You mentioned a Charalambides collaboration. Anything come of that?
JG: I think I mentioned Tom Carter. There was no Charalambides collaboration. Christina Carter and Heather Leigh Murray have a duo called Scorces. We invited them to work on Tears of the Ditchdigger, employing them mainly as vocalists. We are friends with Charalambides. I try to play with Tom whenever I get the chance. He has a beautifully resonant sound and can get some really twisted yelps from the ebow. He's the King. And she's the Queen, the Queen of Charalambides.
AI: About your Orphan Sounds label... Have you operated mostly on your own in terms of distributing Orphan Sounds music or have you found like minded channels providing opportunities for wider distribution?
JG: We had an agreement with Anomalous Records in Seattle. But it turns out they don't want to deal with CDRs anymore. So it falls back on me again. I really think the legitimacy of the CD over the CDR is a classist fabrication built up by the industry in order to keep artists down who can't get 1,200--1,500 bucks together to make a CD happen. You are also forced each time to make more than you probably need and I find this wasteful. I have contemplated becoming a live direct feed with no reproduction nor backwards glancing. But there is something nice about the intimate moment with a recording. I think a CDR is a fine thing. We guarantee satisfaction at Orphan Sounds.
AI: Your web site news page mentions an upcoming solo CD on the German NUR/NICHT/NUR label. How's that coming along and have you had any other recordings released on a label other than your own?
JG: The metal box from Nur/Nicht/Nur is due out in the fall. There's a plan from a New Zealand label but I will keep mum until its final. It may be vinyl, so that's exciting to me. Djalma Primordial Science is doing the Butoh on the Land retreat and then we will do a tour in Mexico in October/November. Planning a European tour next Spring with new collaborators: butoh dancer Mari Akita and oboist/reeds player from Chicago, Kyle Bruckmann. I know, it's not enough right?
For more information you can visit the Orphan Sounds web site at: http://www.djalma.com.
Email Jeff Gburek at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact via snail mail c/o Jeff Gburek; 601 11th St NW; Albuquerque, NM 87102.