For more than a decade, Bhob Rainey has been one of the premier woodwind players in the United States, if not the world. The soprano saxophonist has performed solo (he assures me unreleased, formative solo recordings are forthcoming) and in large groups, as the director of The BSC; however, Bhob might be best known as one half of nmperign. Along with trumpeter Greg Kelley — and several others along the way — the group has been a free-improvisation fixture ever since it formed in the late 1990s.
Rainey is known for insightful, lucid musical and music-industrial thoughts (so much so he is now an instructor of music industry studies at Loyola New Orleans). This past May, TMT had the opportunity to talk with Bhob while he swung through North Carolina in support of Damon & Naomi. What appears below is a portion of our conversation.
How the hell do you pronounce nmperign?
nim’ (like nimble) -per (miles per hour) - ine (like wine)
Is there any meaning behind that name?
It comes from this Latin phrase “ignotum per ignotius,” which means “the unknown through the more unknown.” Just take a bunch of letters out of that and squeeze the rest together.
How have you and Greg Kelley developed as musicians since you started playing together in the late 90s? When I listen to some of your newer works and compare them to older pieces, I can identify similar techniques, though in no way am I suggesting they are the same. Do you think that you have changed as a player over the past decade plus?
You know, you keep whittling down things that aren’t important to you anymore. And I think when you play this kind of music you always have to be getting over the novelty of whatever you’re doing at the time and work toward the core of things. Both Greg and I were always, even from the beginning, very suspicious of novelty.
That was part of the logic behind some of the more heavy touring we were doing at the time: When you play every night, for six weeks, your sounds aren’t so fresh anymore, and you’re forced to ask yourself, “What am I doing? What am I trying to say? What is the relationship here?” I think mostly what we’ve been doing is throwing away things that aren’t important anymore, feeling the space a little bit better, becoming more comfortable with the pace of events, not feeling like everything we can do must be done.
I think it’s easy to understand if you’ve ever played jazz. There are certain drummers whose eighth notes seem longer than others, and you have all of this space within the beat to do your thing. Something like this has happened to us — time got “wider”.
At this point in your career, do you engage in much pre-performance discussion, especially with someone like Greg with whom you have been playing for so long?
We don’t talk much about anything, we just start playing. At most, we might discuss some logistics like how long we should play, and even that discussion might not have much bearing on what comes out.
When we first started playing together, Greg and I talked about musical ideas — mostly broad goals — and we would listen to a lot of music together (Greg, in particular, had an amazing CD collection). We would also make recordings of our shows, listen back, and do a lot of wincing.
With The BSC, we spent a lot more time workshopping our music.
“[As] soon as you have instructions in front of a performer, no matter how vague, you’ve changed from improvisation to composition. If that composition doesn’t offer a good trade, well, I’d rather play Bach.”
It seems like you might have to with a larger group.
There are certainly more things that can go wrong. And I remember that, at the beginning, The BSC didn’t have the typical large-ensemble problem where everyone plays too much and it’s all a chaotic mess. It was the opposite — everyone was too polite, and I was, like, “Let’s tear this up a bit!”
At this point, The BSC works very well without a lot of chatting. I’ll often just say something before a performance that’s somewhat simple and vague to make sure we’re all on the same page. Part of the goal of The BSC was to counter this notion that when you get beyond five musicians, you can’t have coherent, free improvisation — you need some kind of pre-determined structure. I had played in a bunch of large ensembles that had these structuring elements, and they were generally mediocre experiences.
I recall seeing that The BSC had played Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise at one point?
Yes, we performed pieces like that mainly because of our relationship with the New England Conservatory and Steve Drury. It was never something I set out to do with the group, though some of the material was very successful. We did some things with Christian Wolff, like his Edges that I love. I really enjoyed working with him, and I felt that the score brought something out of us. And then we’ve done some things that I am happy to have behind me, like Treatise, really.
In general, do you not like playing those sorts of graphic scores?
In general, yes, but that does not mean that I dislike them as a whole. I think this is partially due to my musical training, my idea of composition. Having been an improviser for so long, I have great respect for what improvisers do. I’d rather cultivate that than throw in some vague organizing mechanism that suddenly allows someone to take authorship of the music. If I’m going to surrender myself and become essentially a tool for a composer’s vision, then I want a sense of having mastered something very rich. I want to be challenged, technically (something quite difficult to do explicitly with a graphic score) and conceptually (something that graphic scores are well-suited for but that can often be fairly shallow). It’s very hard for me to tell you the line between a graphic score that I like and dislike, but I would guess that I prefer scores for which there is a key to the symbols (like Edges) or a specific plan of action that’s laid out (like Cartridge Music) — in this sense, graphic scores become an extension of so-called traditional notation.
The BSC played all of those Stockhausen text pieces [Aus den seiben Tagen], and I was curious how much power they had over the music, how, with very little laid out in terms of a score, the composition really dictated the performance. But, ultimately I was still not that interested in those pieces.
I love the process of improvising. I think what comes out of that can be totally amazing, and when you deeply care about the outcome, the process can be profoundly intense. You’re always thinking, “Crap, shouldn’t have done that… Okay, got to make up for this and justify that.” All of this information is coming at you at once, and you’re trying to make something tangible and solid out of that. It’s really exciting. Whereas when you have a score, you trade a lot of that experience for something else. I mean, as soon as you have instructions in front of a performer, no matter how vague, you’ve changed from improvisation to composition. If that composition doesn’t offer a good trade, well, I’d rather play Bach.
Getting back to The BSC, what is the difference for you in playing with the whole ensemble as opposed to a small group setting or even by yourself? Do you prefer any one setting?
I think I have to have them all. When one situation starts to grate on you, it’s nice to transition into another mode.
The differences, well, it’s not just the number of people that matters, but also who those people are. With any group improvisation (and this is highlighted when the group gets bigger), you’re always, in a sense, playing everyone else’s part in addition to your own. The more you see things that way, the more you can play freely.
For instance, I really hate this idea when you have a large ensemble that you have someone telling people that they need to leave more space. Suddenly, people are becoming disengaged — they leave space, but they also leave the piece. If the idea is that you’re playing everybody’s part all of the time, then space is not the same thing: I’m not playing, but that’s because I’m “turning up” Chris Cooper’s part; or, I’m adding this note, but only because I know that Greg would really like to be playing a chord right now.
With The BSC, there’s this feeling that we’re all this one, gangly instrument and that’s what we’re playing.
In another conversation, you said you thought the so-called EAI [electroacoustic improvisation] was dying. I often see people getting at this online, especially on I Hate Music (IHM). I do see their point to an extent, but then I also see a release like motubachii [by Annette Krebs and Taku Unami], which was both fantastic and very much so within the EAI idiom. So I don’t quite know what these online personalities mean. What do you mean by this claim?
I don’t really think that EAI is dying. In a sense, I don’t think it ever existed. I never felt central to it, and it’s only been recently that I’ve used the term without a million qualifications. But as far as what other people are saying, I think a lot of this “EAI is dead” narrative comes from IHM conversations, as well as a few jabs here and there in The Wire (Nick Cain’s infamous “150 people in the world who care about this music” statement). At this point, the idea seems pretty solidified — few people are writing favorably about what they might call EAI without at least some circuitous apologies.
“When you play every night, for six weeks, your sounds aren’t so fresh anymore, and you’re forced to ask yourself, ‘What am I doing? What am I trying to say? What is the relationship here?’”
It seems to me that this notion is a meme to a certain extent. I realize that there are important players that have moved more toward composition, but as I reflect on 2010, there were plenty of solid EAI releases.
I don’t want to be that guy who says, “Oh, there’s always interesting things happening,” but it’s true. This story of an EAI apocalypse is pretty overstated, like some revolution that went on valiantly for a decade has suddenly failed. The people who need these types of revolutions are labels and magazines and those heavy consumers who feed on that type of narrative to be titillated.
Still, we need to evolve and adapt to the world that we’re in. If you’re not stuck with this idea of “EAI,” you’re not going to be stubborn about it’s stylistic trappings, and you’re not going to mourn its passing.
When I first started noticing this downturn in the EAI story, I got a little depressed. When people started claiming that there were no good improvisation albums in a year, well, that sounds really sad. But, when I thought about it, I’ve only ever liked about 5% of the albums that come out. And I don’t think that’s changed at all. So I guess this might all just be a bubble. Maybe we’re back where things normally are. The sounds were ‘new’ and there was this excitement to the newness and a quest to understand it from all of these perspectives. But that excitement has receded. And it’s really across the board with recorded music, from popular music all the way down to this obscure stuff.
Do you think that has infected your sort of music?
It’s been slower to, but yes.
I always felt that within such a niche like EAI, beyond systemic economic shocks, the people who purchase this music would continue to do in spite of its illegal availability.
That may be true, but that core group who will always purchase music was only a fraction of what we were seeing in the past decade. That’s one thing I always loved about nmperign not being entirely within this free-improvisation community. We would play noise festivals and INSTAL and venues that didn’t just host low volume, low velocity music. That can get tedious, act after act of this “highly considered” stuff.
We have a nasty side, and it’s nice to be able to connect with different audiences. Some of the best shows we’ve ever played have been far removed from the EAI crowd, like noise festivals where everyone gets really quiet and are just so psyched that this thing, which is ultimately pretty freaking punk, if you think about it, is happening. Sometimes you play something in a more squarely EAI context, and when the set is over you feel like you farted, and that’s the end. No one looks you in the eye. You might read a glowing review online the next day, but the person writing the review never introduced himself. It’s a really weird situation.
How did you get involved with the noise scene? It seems like Greg may be more closely associated with noise than you?
He’s done more stuff that might be explicitly considered noise. But Boston always had this cross-pollination. We [Bhob and Greg] did a whole tour with Ron Lessard [from RRRecords; Emil Beaulieau] playing separate acts. It was great. We were driving together, doing the shows together, night after night. We were loving his show, he was loving ours. When we got back to Boston, we started doing these trio shows together (nmperrron), which were ridiculous. And, of course, we’ve played with Jason Lescalleet since the late 1990s.
“If you’re not stuck with this idea of ‘EAI,’ you’re not going to be stubborn about it’s stylistic trappings, and you’re not going to mourn its passing.”
He seems like someone that has been equally loved by both noise folk and those who post on IHM.
Yes, and I think that is a big asset to the IHM community, because it opens possibilities up for enjoying other artists. And it’s nice for people who are so immersed in silences to have at least one concert a year where it’s a really loud, visceral experience. Jason provides that, for sure.
So we’ve been close to noise for a long time. There’s a whole era in the middle of the last decade where one of the big venues to play at in Boston was the Berwick Research Institute. They had a ton of noise shows, with improv mixed in. A bunch of costume noise/rock was coming out of Providence at that time as well, and all of these elements were constantly interacting.
On a local level, noise and improv were never that separate. Despite some public characterizations of our music, we’ve always been part of this mixed scene. Shortly before I left Boston, in fact, nmperign did a show with Joke [from Sudden Infant], because he asked us to. It was awesome, it was a great show. I think we’re just game for a lot of different things — not too precious about what we do. It’s really nice to connect to different ideas, you know? There’s so much implied in all of this silence and quiet music. Sometimes it’s good to have overt statements. You can internalize them later.
I’ve always observed this connection between anything revolving around improv/free jazz idioms and noise music. Free improv shows can draw out the local noise bros in strangely large numbers.
Yes, and noise did have it’s ascendancy this past decade — the Wolf Eyes and Lightning Bolt phenomena, among other things. Certainly the support of people like Thurston Moore helped both noise and free jazz get heard. And there’s still something of a cache, even though [like with EAI] people have been trying to say that noise is also finished — that whole ‘hypnagogic pop’ thing in The Wire, for instance.
But I swear, for the most part, that if you’re a noise fan who has not heard John Olson [of Wolf Eyes] say that Greg Kelley is awesome, then you’re probably not going to be psyched when two guys come up on stage and play a soprano saxophone and a trumpet. There’s immediately this feeling, “Oh it’s jazz, let’s get out of here.”
[You can read the rest of the interview at Bhob Rainey’s website.]