Q&A with Jeremiah Cymerman
Composer and clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman is a New York native whose techniques and expression is all his own. Experimentally driven, his lush landscapes reach into an existence that accounts for so many properties of music that merge together, creating a shockingly sophisticated and futuristic resonance. As a member of the creatively innovative circle of musicians around John Zorn, Jeremiah has had the opportunity to create among some of the most forward thinking musicians of this age. With a heavy penchant for transfixing tones into experimental hemispheres of the abstract form, his music breaks open something new for the world to absorb.
Jeremiah Cymerman has been one of those artists whose releases and collaborations have slowly revealed themselves in my life, becoming treasured items of my music collection like a rare gem find in a deep expedition. Jeremiah created a new imprint 5049 Records to document the releases he has a deep desire to bring into the world and we had the opportunity to cover the latest release on the imprint in Purification/Dissloution from Jeremiah himself. To interview an artist who creates music of this magnitude is why we started this website and it is with great pleasure to present this interview with Jeremiah Cymerman today. Enjoy.
Sound Colour Vibration: Purification/Dissolution is your latest record and you released it on your new imprint 5049 Records. What vision and concept did you create when making this new label?
Jeremiah Cymerman: The idea for the label came sort of out of nowhere. With my last release, “Fire Sign”, I really learned the value of working without any sort of deadline or expectation on how or when the music would eventually see the light of day. I worked my ass off on that music but I didn’t rush anything and I put a lot of trust into my own intuition as to when the pieces were really finished and that proved to be an essential perspective in my creative process. So I knew going forward that that was how I needed to operate but for artistic and practical reasons that is very much at odds with the traditional model of releasing music. It can often take a long time for the wheels to start moving and it’s frustrating to make a piece of recorded music and then have it not see the light of day for 6 months to a year or more. It’s no longer a representation of what you’re up to, it’s a representation of what you were up to you a year ago. So that’s one thing that I wanted to address. I wanted a situation where if I have a piece of music like “Purification/Dissolution”, that feels urgent, that I can get it out as soon as possible. For this album I had CDs in hand within a month of doing the last overdub.
One thing that convinced me to start my own label is when I stopped to take stock of the labels that are around releasing the kind of music that I love, I realized that they are all artist run labels that were started by people releasing their own music: Tzadik, PSI, Ipecac, Southern Lord, etc etc etc. There was definitely once a time when an artist releasing his own music carried with it some negative connotations, that this was someone who couldn’t get anyone to stand behind their music, etc. Truth is that’s just not the case anymore. If anything having your own label is yet another level of being able to share yourself with your listeners. It’s fucking rad!
Releasing music commercially is getting tougher and tougher and it’s become very clear that a lot of established, more conventional methods for doing so just don’t make sense any more. At least not at the level that I am operating. I don’t have any illusions about 5049 becoming a well known label and the likelihood of it being a short lived vanity project is pretty high but ideally it will be a sustainable model for releasing some of my own music. If I can continue to be pretty self-sufficient and keep production costs low, handling a lot of it myself, I don’t see any reason why I can’t release records whenever I want with 5049. I still want to release records through other labels. If at any time Tzadik wants to do a record with me, believe me I AM THERE, but there’s a lot of freedom in having this little thing that I have now and once I made the decision to start my own label I immediately felt a sense of freedom just wash over me. It’s a really liberating.
Ultimately with 5049 I see myself as a purveyor of fine experimental music and my goal is to be able to provide my product directly to the discerning connoisseur. I see this label as having more in common with a craft beer brewer or a boutique wine-maker than any sort of conventional record label. “Purification/Dissolution” is my 2012. It’s ingredients were all locally sourced from New York City and is a heavy-bodied document with big, bold flavors and a dark garnet color. My 2013 will be an amplified quartet record with Peter Evans, Nate Wooley and Matt Bauder and will have more subtle, floral flavors.
SCV: Can you explain a little bit how you approached the recordings for Purification/Dissolution?
JC: I had been wanting to do another solo record for a while. Since 2007 I have played tons and tons of solo concerts which involve clarinet, electronics and amplification and more and more those performances began to take a on a life of their own. Considering that for a time the bulk of the concerts that I was performing were in fact solo concerts it felt strange that I didn’t have a record that represented that side of my output. I kept trying to record my solo performances but the recordings never seemed right. One thing about my live, amplified concerts is that they depend quite heavily on extreme volume levels which have a physical effect on the audience and add a lot of feeling to the music but was something that didn’t necessarily translate well to recording. There’d be a lot of drones and feedback, which again, work great in concert but can be kind of boring as a recorded document. The other thing that wasn’t quite right was that it didn’t work to just have a live, recorded document. I felt that the music was missing a certain level of nuance and would benefit from a producer’s touch. Once I had noted all these considerations I decided that I wanted to work with producer Randall Dunn, who lives in Seattle. Randall works a lot with Sunn O))) and other bands that use extreme amplification and I felt that not only would he get was I was up to but would really add a lot to it. We emailed back and forth and he really wanted to do it, it just didn’t work out. All the while I had been making demos to send him and after a while I realized that it was foolish to be making demos and that I should just make the record myself in my home studio.
The end result is something I’m really proud of. It’s a lot of live takes that have been slightly reshaped or accented with electronics and slight editing. One thing I get really bummed out about with a lot of improvised music is that it seems that people will just throw up a few mics and hit record and that’s the record. There’s nothing wrong with that and in fact depending on the situation that is exactly what you should do but for this record, and most records i have made and will make, I want a thicker, more stylized production. It’s really important to me that the sound of the record be paid heavy consideration. The way a record sounds tells just as much of a story as the music itself.
SCV: When you construct music, do you listen to it after it has been released into the world?
JC: Embarrassingly the answer to this question is yes. I do so less now than I used to but it’s definitely been part of my growth to listen back and, quite honestly, scrutinize the music. Every album that I’ve made, by the time they’re released, I can find a million things wrong with them. It’s kind of unfortunate that it turns out that way but I do think it’s helped me to move forward and get better in certain areas. I’ve always felt drawn to the Beckett quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
SCV: You have been composing music for awhile now. When putting musical ideas into paper, is there a different state of being than constructing music without the written form?
JC: A really crucial element of being an artist of any kind is understanding, refining and respecting your own process. For my own pursuits I have worked with and will continue to work with a variety of methodologies: conventional notation, improvisation, graphic scores, electronic & electroacoustic music made primarily at the computer and certainly combinations of all of these things and many more. The music and the project dictate what I approach I take. For the last two records it’s been very much about sort of this very hermetic process of improvising, editing and refining in my home studio which is perhaps most in my comfort zone. To address your question more directly there is absolutely no difference in any state of being when I am committed to the creation of music whether it be improv or composition. They are two sides of the same coin. As a listener and an artist I am most interested in emotional and intellectually engaged music that tells a story, transports me to hypnotic states of catharsis and bliss and ultimately smashes my fucking heart into pieces. Sadly, even among musicians there can be a pretty insidious tendency to put these different music making strategies into different hierarchical boxes and it’s just not a very useful way to look at things, especially in 2012. Great music is great music and whether that music is born of pen and paper or two improvisers discovering something in real time without music stands is of no consequence whatsoever.
SCV: You have been collaborating with the John Zorn crowd for a while now. How did you meet this vast network of musicians and who have become closest to you?
JC: I moved to New York City for the express purpose of creating music among the musicians that I think are making some of the most interesting and best work on the planet. I wouldn’t say that upon arrival I dove in headfirst because I tend to be a very shy person but pretty early on I was trying to figure out how and where I fit in. It’s hard to believe that ten years has already passed since I moved here… I used to hang around Tonic four or five nights a week, checking out whatever was happening but I was much too shy to talk to anyone. It took me so long just to get the courage to ask people if they’d want to play with me. I eventually put a trio together with people that I found on Craigslist and we booked a show at the original Issue Project Room on E. 6th St where I met Suzanne Fiol who proved to have a huge impact on my life. After that, for a while I would help out at Issue. I would record concerts, put chairs out for shows, do the door and whatever else needed to be done. Suzanne introduced me to a lot of people, some of whom I was very much in awe of. Suzanne would introduce me as “brilliant young composer Jeremiah Cymerman” to people like Anthony Coleman and Ikue Mori and she was the first person to ever show me that kind of encouragement. That period of time was very special to me.
As far the musicians I feel closest to in New York: Toby Driver, Nate Wooley, Peter Evans, Matthew Welch, John Zorn, Jessica Pavone, Brian Chase, Mario Diaz de Leon, Matt Bauder, Sam Kulik, Chris Hoffman, Harris Eisenstadt, Mary Halvorson and Jamie Saft are a few names that come to mind immediately.
SCV: Who have been your most important mentors and teachers for your music?
JC: I am, for all intents and purposes, a self-taught musician so I’ve never really had a formal student/teacher relationship with anyone. That’s not to say that I haven’t learned an awful lot from the people around me. One thing that I think is really important, particularly as a young artist, is to have older people in your life who you admire and who are willing to, on some level, inhabit the role of mentor. It may not necessarily be a spoken thing but it’s the type of thing that tends to be acknowledged by both parties even if it’s not spoken. One person in my life who has inhabited this role has been John Zorn. He’s just such an encouraging and knowledgeable person. We’ll get together and do these epicly long lunches and talk about everything from music to love, life, career, everything… Whenever I leave a conversation with him I pretty much feel like I can do anything and you’ve got to have people like that in your life. There’s just no way around it.
SCV: Toby Driver is another musician you have collaborated with. I absolutely love what he has been doing in his various groups and the two of you have made some music together. What type of approach to sound does he offer that no other musician does?
JC: Toby has been a very important person in my life for the past five years or so as a friend, a colleague and a collaborator, during which time his band Kayo Dot has become my favorite band. If I were to try and zero in on what it is that I find so special in Toby’s sound I think it might come down to his really nuanced ability to present heart-breaking vulnerability in elegant compositions that deal with sound in very intense and extreme terms. My heart gets ripped out of my chest every time I hear “Whisper Ineffible”.
Toby is also someone who I have spent a good deal of time evolving certain ideas. In a lot of ways he’s become my go-to guy for when I have a musical problem that can only be worked through a scrutinizing conversation where more questions are asked than answered. There is a lot to be said for surrounding yourself not only with people who are supportive of your vision but who also have a pretty divergent view from your own and can offer a unique perspective that maybe you hadn’t before considered.
SCV: What have been your most memorable live performances in your career?
JC: There are so many… Some that come to mind immediately: the night that I premiered “Under a Blue Grey Sky” (my string quartet) at Roulette, the first time that John Zorn invited me to one of his improv nights at the Stone and we ended up playing duo, my first concert at the original Issue Project Room on E. 6th St, a Tartar Lamb show at Zebulon in 2010, the list goes on and on… I will say that after ten years of making music in New York City, for every one show where I’ve walked off stage feeling as if I could chop down a mountain with the edge of my hand there are at least two where I’ve left the stage with a heart full of defeat and a head full of questions, feeling like I’ve done everything wrong. Pretty much every show has some weighty emotional consequences for me.
SCV: With Purification/Dissolution seeing the light of day for some time now, what other projects can we expect to come out in the near or distant future?
JC: Right now I am at various levels of production on couple of different records:
As mentioned earlier I’m currently mixing/editing the next record for 5049 which is an amplified horn quartet with Nate Wooley & Peter Evans on trumpets and Matt Bauder and I on woodwinds. This is a super intense record. We spent two days at the beginning of the month rehearsing and workshopping and then played a concert, all of which was recorded in the new Roulette which is just a drop dead gorgeous concert hall. I am taking a producer’s role on it and doing some very creative mixes and taking some liberties with how the record is constructed. This should be out in March 2013.
I am currently wrapping up mixes on a duo record with the French violist Frantz Loriot. It’s a straight up acoustic free improv record and will be the third release for 5049, coming out around the same time as the quartet record.
Production has begun on the debut recording of a new band called BloodMist which is a collaborative trio with Toby and composer Mario Diaz de Leon. As was the case with the amplified horn quartet we just did a residency at Roulette, recording for three days and then a premiere performance. This is going to be something that gets worked on this fall. We are going to be doing overdubs and taking our time as the record takes shape. I honestly have no idea when that will see the light of day but work has begun and I am really excited for people to hear all three of these projects.
SCV: Thank you so much for the insight into your music and for the time to answer our questions, we hope you the best of luck this year and for many years to come.
*Conducted by Erik Otis