Robbie Lee is an artist who thrives on collaboration. Among his recent partners: Guitarist Mary Halvorson, who won a 2019 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and composer Lea Bertucci, whose album Resonant Field, named a top Jazz album of 2019 by the New York Times, featured Lee on flute.
In the following exchange, which took place over several months via a shared Google document, the multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer weighs in on David Bowie, his love of duos, NYC’s experimental music scene of the 1990s, and what it means to be a contemporary composer most comfortable in that liminal space between genres.
In a recent documentary about Blue Note Records, Wayne Shorter recalls Miles Davis asking, “Don’t you get tired of playing music that sounds like music?” As someone trying to get his mind around all the various projects you’ve worked on, I am tempted to locate a similar restlessness in your work. Do you think this is a fair comparison, or do you prefer to view your eclecticism in more pedestrian terms?
Sure, I get tired of playing music that sounds like music, but then I also get tired of playing music that doesn’t sound like music! I’ve been trying to answer this question for my whole musical life, though I suspect it is unanswerable when you push it to the limit. Although I follow many different threads at the same time, that veer into wildly disparate genres, my core interests are consistent. There’s one sense in which my life in experimental music and pop music is self-medicating, and I always know that when I feel worn out by the direction I’m following, the other side is there to spark excitement back into me.
The business and culture of music are different from other arts, in the narrowness of identity we expect from our heroes. Imagine a world in which all writers must pick one single genre and style for life. Imagine a world where Borges or someone like Guy Davenport wasn’t allowed to write fiction, essays, and poetry, in the same lifetime or even in the same year. Or a world where Werner Herzog had to choose between documentaries and taking money from Hollywood. But when a musician makes an album that is even slightly off-course, it’s seen as radical and usually deemed a mistake by critics who misunderstand. And even the musicians who we think of as the successes of their wide-ranging interests are actually still incredibly narrow. How different are all the David Bowie albums, really? We give Jazz artists more leeway, but still not as much as we should. I even catch myself making unfair assumptions about what other people do.
I was indoctrinated in this narrow-minded attitude myself even at age 16, for instance by following Coltrane’s and the Beatles’ development from album to album, becoming convinced that the purpose of art is “progress,” viewed with a historical narrative. But at a certain point I started to understand that all of my increasingly varied interests still spoke to the same me. It’s so obvious in other areas of our lives: I have favorite foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I don’t think anyone should force me to choose the meal I want to focus on exclusively! It doesn’t mean I have the same reasons to like breakfast as to like dinner; there are some threads of taste and preference that connect them, and some that don’t.
Funny metaphor, but actually a good one for me: There are some threads that connect all of my interests. One of the most important is a certain feel for simplicity and complexity tied together. That means I’m showing how infinitely nuanced you can be with three chords in a Pop/Rock/Folk song, or showing how much clarity and focus you can create out of total atonality in a free improvisation. But there are some preferences, or really needs, that can’t be satisfied by all things, like the desire to make an emotional connection in a song, or the hyper-unique harmonic interests I have in my instrumental music. I explore those threads in different ways, and that’s OK!
So, to get back to your question, I am not restless about trying to find the future, but I am restless in trying to catch the resonance that is speaking to me in any one moment. I guess I’m restless constantly, but never bored.
People who have written about you always mention your long list of collaborators, from Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Mary Halvorson. Do you think it is too easy to treat the frequency of your collaborative projects as an extension of the fluidity you have been discussing? As a working musician, your collaborations seem to embrace an older, more social, approach to music.
As my story in music has progressed, the collaborations have tended to become more focused and purposeful, though I will always love the random outliers. You could view all of my projects like that simple triangle optical illusion, where all it takes is three little corners, and the brain fills in the full object. I don’t think there’s a way for any single project/album/performance to fully convey what I’m about, but I do hope that several of them together give a better picture of the triangle’s phantom center. Most of my live and recording projects have been dancing along the edges of my interests, showing one piece of the triangle or another, if I may keep going with the metaphor! Hopefully some new solo works, that are in the pipeline now, will keep filling in that picture even better.
If you look at my collaborations, there’s one thing they have in common: small groups, usually duos and trios. I LOVE duos more than anything. When they work, the experience of playing has the greatest kind of immediacy and even intimacy: a direct link with another human head and heart. It’s a very different thing from playing in a band, where four members of a quartet might each give 25 percent of themselves. My favorite collaborations tend to be all in. So, in a sense, they’re not that older social approach you mention, and often you could even call them insular. We are creating a private language, more like a super-solo, and you are constantly prodded into creativity by the other person, who becomes the other half of your brain.
Of course, people are going to write about the more prominent artists you’ve worked with. Some of my best-known credits are for a session that took one day of my life, ten years ago, and will probably be attached to my name forever. And that’s fine! But I hope that people will dig into the deepest musical stories that I’m always trying to cultivate, in addition to the incidental fun things that have happened along the way. To go back to your question, the one-off sessions with songwriters, pop artists, and film and video folks are more in line with the older social approach, but my solos and small intensive groups are the other sort. I’m so lucky to have such amazing musician friends like Brian and Mary, who constantly remind me of the million paths toward creativity, all of them fascinating.
The first time I met you, we talked about the NYC scene in the late ‘90s. At the time, you were a music student who would swoop into the city for shows at Tonic and other long-gone venues. With every fiber of my being, I try to resist glorifying how much better things were back then. Being a creative person seems much more difficult now, with fewer places to play and a scene that seems atomized into pockets of activity. But nostalgia is also problematic, because it omits just how dangerous the city was and how non-inclusive the scene could be. What do you think?
Some things truly were better, not for reasons of nostalgia, but because they were a catalyst for art making in very particular ways. In ye olden pre-internet tymes, you had to really work for information, and so succeeding and finding music you loved felt not only exhilarating, but like joining a secret club. You had to show your face and participate, and you had to take chances, and risk experiencing something that you did NOT love…and sometimes you found out that you loved it after all. YouTube and Spotify have all but eliminated that phenomenon, when we take in 30-second previews and decide not to go out tonight, after all. I used to buy so many CDs having no clue what they were. Every CD I bought that I didn’t like, I still listened to over and over, because I owned it, and half the time I later discovered that my first impression was wrong. Today we all think we have infallible taste, but one of the best things in the world is finding out that you were wrong in a negative judgement! But the cards are stacked against that kind of learning and discovery right now, in a new way in this media landscape.
I think it was Lester Bangs who wrote that his reviews mattered because he didn’t take free review copies, he bought the records himself, and so bad music was personal, in effect stealing his money! Maybe that’s opposite to my point, but it’s so important to feel that art matters, not just philosophically, but viscerally. Going to New York weird music clubs, when I was younger than most of the audience, made me feel like I was doing something that mattered. And seeing Keiji Haino, or Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley duo at Tonic, performances of Morton Feldman, or the winter solstice playback with a naked guy in the audience at Phill Niblock’s loft…it really felt like it mattered. Everything still matters, but the ground has shifted, and we have to find our way with a new set of rules.
Your work on Seed Triangular seems to take that advice to heart. There is a freshness that you and Halvorson bring to each piece which doesn’t rely on licks or any predetermined performative elements. As a listener, I feel the immediacy of a whispered conversation with someone you’ve just met. I am particularly taken by “Rock Flowers,” where the soprillo saxophone replaces the Baroque flute, the Renaissance clarinet and the melodica to mark an urgent turn in your exchange. The best comparison I can offer is your playing draws upon Mickey Katz by way of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Ha! Now I need to revisit Katz, who I’ve only heard years ago. I love when the music takes on a kind of conversational levity, like a late-night hang with an old friend you haven’t seen in years, but click right back into place with. Interrupting each other, but laughing about it too. I could think of these improvisations like overhearing a conversation in a foreign language, where you don’t know the words, but you feel the meaning of the energy. The reason I first gravitated towards unusual instruments was to try to get away from the baggage of my heroes, to remove the licks from my bag of tricks. There’s so much intrinsic meaning in just hearing one note from a tenor saxophone, which is a different meaning from one note of an alto. But one note of baroque flute in the context of free improv—well, you’ve got to listen deeper to find out the background. On Seed Triangular we pushed this even farther, because I gave Mary unusual string instruments of mine to play, rather than her own guitars (which have become iconic in their own right). So, she was grappling with new sounds and new feels on the spot, and having to invent her approach in real-time. The flip-side is that we really had to listen carefully, and so even though the album is fully improvised, the more I have heard it, I really feel like it is a record of compositions, each piece having a voice of its own. I remember it feeling like a fun session, really an easygoing good time.
It seems too easy to say that the record is so much fun because you do non-period things on period instruments. But the truth is you also feature a lot of music that is historically accurate. What I love most is that the Renaissance and Early Baroque material exists alongside your contemporary extrapolations, without irony. I am thinking especially of pieces like “The Booming,” “sing o-gurgle-ee this evening” and “The Tawny Orange.” What you accomplish is very post-post-modern, or post-Spotify.
I’m sure that zero period specialists would agree with you! All kidding aside, I will agree, but only in a backwards kind of way. I listen to a huge amount of music, almost incessantly, but I don’t copy anything when I play. When improvising or composing, my mind seems to go blank. I will gladly accept your “post-post-modernism,” so long as I can still reject post-modernism…not in general, just for my personal process of music-making. When I play, it isn’t a deliberate commentary on anything, but of course it must be a reflection of all of the music I have absorbed, refracted through the filter of my own mind. I love pre-1800 music, so if you hear that in Seed Triangular and more, my brain must be turned on. Hopefully it’s all jumbled up with other things I love, like ‘70s songwriters, Euro/UK Improv, South African Jazz, and even modern Top 40 Pop. I bet I could locate all of those things in my recordings after the fact, but it wouldn’t be deliberate in the moment.
As an exclusive to this interview, you have made two new pieces available, “True Tone” and “Simple Fork And Knife.” My understanding is that they are part of a longer series of solo pieces, featuring the sopranino and tuning forks. What else would you care to share about the work? Personally, I find it exhilarating music that brings everything we have been discussing to the fore.
Oh, we almost forgot to talk about new music! This is a hyper-specific album, though it contains at least two multitudes. On the fourth of July in 2018, I found myself alone in a secluded cabin, and without having planned it, I recorded the Commercial Product that the world is clearly desperate for, an album for solo sopranino saxophone. But not wanting to be too punishing, the tracks alternate with gentler drone-concrète on a variety of unusual tuning forks, made with a special handheld looping setup that I’ve developed over the years. It’s a more ascetic work than anything I’ve released before, but there’s lots of color inside. Despite influences from free improv, in my mind there is a very strong folk element in the saxophone playing, a minimalist core within the maximalist splatter. It will be released sometime in 2020, and I can’t wait to see if others hear it the same as I do, or completely differently.
William Lessard has writing that has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, McSweeney’s, Best American Experimental Writing, Hyperallergic, the Brooklyn Rail, and the Poetry Foundation. His visual work has been featured at MoMA PS1, and is part of the permanent collection at Poets House.
Photo: Anna Webber