Jeremiah Cymerman: Interview
“People attach so much expectation to what they do, and I think it pollutes the process a little bit.”

Jeremiah Cymerman, 32, lives in Manhattan. He plays the clarinet. Among his recent releases are Fire Sign, released in 2011 on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and Purification/Dissolution, released last year on his own 5049 label. Both albums are brutal and beautiful at once, combining Cymerman’s interests in noise, improv, and musique concrète.

His new album, out this week on 5049, is Sky Burial. It’s the first recording by his Amplified Quartet, featuring trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans, and saxophonist Matt Bauder, all of whom employ various effects pedals and electronic rigs. The tracks were recorded live during a few improvised sessions at Roulette, in Brooklyn, then Cymerman micro-edited the pieces in his home studio. The finished product is immaculately spliced-up lunacy, as electroacoustic sizzles, dings, yowls, squawks, yells, and sub-bass roars viciously screw and revolt.

“Normally I don’t stop working on an album until I have every detail finalized and exactly how I want it,” says Cymerman. “But with Sky Burial, I just threw my arms up and said, ‘I do not know what the fuck this is anymore. I’m finished.’”

I also do not know what the fuck Sky Burial is, but I do know that it’s splendid. One recent afternoon, Cymerman sat in his apartment on the Lower East Side, while I sat in my apartment in West Philadelphia, and we talked on the phone for about 40 minutes. When he first picked up, he was coughing.


Are you sick?

No, I’ve just had too much coffee.

How much coffee have you consumed today?

I’ve had about five or six cups. I cut down for a while because I would do strange things, like cough, like I’m doing right now. But I don’t think I can ever quit this shit.

I recently started drinking a new gunpowder tea, and it made my left eye twitch on-and-off for about three weeks.

I’ve tried to drink a cup of green tea in place of my third or fourth cup of coffee, but it doesn’t work. I need the direct impact that coffee has.

Beverages aside, I heard you once played a solo piano show in Athens, Georgia, and R.E.M. boss Michael Stipe was in the audience.

Yup. I lived in Athens from 1999 to 2001, and one of the first circles of creative people I got involved with was this LGBT theater group. I wrote music for two of their plays. One of them was about this guy who killed his family named “Lobster Boy,” which we did for four nights. They asked me to do a solo set after the play, so I played theremin and keyboard and all this shit, and I had a band. But on one night, I decided to play a solo keyboard set, and I didn’t really think about the fact that I had to play for 40 minutes but I only had about five minutes of material. I’m not a pianist. It was a very humbling moment. It felt surreal, like a dream. I was playing an instrument that I didn’t know how to play, on a stage, by myself, at midnight. There were three people in the audience, and one of them was the singer from R.E.M. I felt so humiliated and embarrassed, and I hope I learned something from it.

Crazy wisdom says that we shouldn’t run from what’s dark, and we shouldn’t deny it; there’s a lot to learn from craziness and from darkness.

What did you learn from it?

Humility, and that’s a lesson I continue to learn. It’s important to take every aspect of music very seriously. I try to treat every recording I make, and every concert I play, with as much seriousness and respect as possible. Part of that includes being ready to show up and give it my best. That seems like a basic 101 rule, but it’s something I had to learn.

Speaking of wisdom, you recent posted this quote by the clarinetist Jack Brymer on your blog: “The ability to play the clarinet is the ability to overcome the imperfections of the instrument. There’s no such thing as the perfect clarinet, there never was, there never will be.” What do you think the imperfections of the clarinet are?

The clarinet is a very temperamental instrument. Everything affects it, so it’s a really difficult instrument to sound good on. It’s also an instrument that carries a lot of history with it, and if you’re not careful, you can let that history cripple your ability to express yourself honestly on it, because you’re constantly comparing your playing and approach to it with this history. There are so many attitudes in place about the correct and incorrect way to do it. But, the truth is, there’s a lot of beauty in those imperfections. There are a lot of interesting places the instrument can be taken. A lot of stuff that I’ve done, and that I’ve continued to do — mic placements, recording techniques, extended technique — is really about finding these tiny places where there are new imperfections. Accepting these imperfections has really been helpful in making me not beat the shit out of myself if I can’t find the tone that I like, or if I’m not on the same level as a lot of the other clarinetists I admire.

You chose the imperfections unique to the clarinet over any other instrument. Why?

I love the clarinet. The first instrument I played growing up was the electric bass, and I switched to clarinet when I was about 17. I felt like there were — and this was before I heard Bill Smith or any of the great jazz clarinetists — some really intense sounds you could make with it. The clarinet can go to some really dark places, and I wanted to explore them. I don’t know why I was intrigued so much by dark music, but I immediately heard the instrument’s darkness, whether played in a very conventional manner, or if you’re bowing your guts out with the thing. There’s an immediate intensity. I’m still interested in that feeling now.

Why do you think you gravitate toward dark music?

There’s something about really intense, dark music that I’m drawn to, in the way I play and what I listen to. One of things I’m most interested in, as a musician and a listener, is the musician’s vulnerability. If I hear a piece of music that doesn’t agree with me, I think, “Is that really what’s in your heart?” I heard a fucking stupid piece of music today — I’m not gonna say what it was — but that was my question. “This asinine, trite bullshit is what’s in your heart?” And I’m not saying that what I’m doing is so much deeper, but it’s what I’m really interested in. I’m interested in music that’s presented in an articulate way, and I want to be able to tell that the person who made the music has put some blood and dirt into it. When I play solo concerts, I use amplifiers and feedback and those elements allow for a sonic environment that’s about breaking through to expose the vulnerability that’s inside of it. I like creating these contrasts between the vulnerability of my instrument and the harsh electronic noise I can build around it.

Speaking of dark, caustic music, let’s talk about your album Fire Sign. In the liner notes, you write that the album came out of a period of intense introspection. Was it a doomful introspection?

It kind of always is. I’m really fortunate — I have a great wife who’s very supportive and loving, and I’ve kind of gotten better at keeping myself in check — but whenever I have a free moment, I get in touch with this heaviness. At the time, I didn’t really know what my next move was gonna be, and I was in a weird place. The genesis of that CD was making music for the sake of making music. I was feeling very bleak, and I wasn’t going to a lot of shows, or playing a lot of shows. I was just putting these little blocks of sound together. I wasn’t even trying to make an album, but, before I knew it, I had like 40 minutes of music assembled. And then I played it for John Zorn, who’s been a really close friend and supporter of mine. I wasn’t shopping it to him, or trying to make an album out of it, but he liked it. I made that music with no expectations. People attach so much expectation to what they do, and I think it pollutes the process a little bit. I have my own bitterness and all that shit, but when I make music without expectations, I think it’s always better and more satisfying.

Do you think creating without expectation makes you more vulnerable?

I think that’s definitely part of it. When you think too much about something, and you start questioning yourself too much, then you start to think about how something is going to be received. And that’s where you lose something. You can’t choreograph everything. What makes something special is allowing it to be what it is in the moment. I think part of a musician’s development process, or for any creative person, is getting to a place where you don’t have to micromanage every little detail. That’s a tricky thing.

A lot of stuff that I’ve done, and that I’ve continued to do — mic placements, recording techniques, extended technique — is really about finding these tiny places where there are new imperfections.

A similar darkness is present on your next album, Purification/Dissolution. Even the song titles, like “Charnal Ground,” which is a place where bodies decompose, are scary. Where does the darkness come from?

In reference to that title, and the title of the new album, Sky Burial — when I was a teenager, I was very fortunate that I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. I told my mother I was very interested in it, so she found a teacher for me, and for a few years, I had a very intense meditation practice. I was going to retreats with lamas — I met the Dalai Lama when I was 15 and got a personal blessing from him — and through that, my stepfather, who raised me, who I was really close to, went into that world with me. He’d drive me to the events, and meet the lamas, and it became a special part of our relationship. And then, when I was 16, he died out of nowhere. It fucking devastated me. I wasn’t emotionally quite ready to deal with that. I went from being this kid who was meditating, and reading about compassion, to being this really angry bastard.

And I’ve always been really fascinated, and drawn to, different rituals of burial and attitudes toward death. If you ever look at photos of charnal grounds and sky burials, there’s something so beautiful and poetic and terrifying about them. When you show someone a picture of a guy chopping up a human and feeding him to birds, the person’s reaction is going to be horror and disgust. But there’s something very beautiful about it.

Maybe I’m talking shit now, but I do think that it’s very frustrating when you make unconventional music — I think the music I make is really articulate and put-together — but I totally understand that someone who doesn’t have experience with this type of music could think it’s off-putting or bad. But I think there’s a correlation — not to compare what I do with a clarinet and an amplifier to thousands of years of tradition and deep spiritual inspection — but there is something about the duality of the beauty and the ugly side by side. Chögyam Trungpa taught about crazy wisdom. These things are very tied together; they’re not as separate as people act like they are. I don’t know why people believe dark and light are two different things. I’m more interested in looking at how they’re not. That really frustrates me. People have a limited perception of things.

What is crazy wisdom?

Oh boy, how do I say this? Nirvana is a state of pure bliss and happiness, and samsara is a state of confusion and worry and unhappiness, and all these things we traditionally refer to as negative. Crazy wisdom says that we shouldn’t run from what’s dark, and we shouldn’t deny it; there’s a lot to learn from craziness and from darkness. That’s not exactly what it is, but that’s basically what it is. It comes from this pretty radical teacher named Chögyam Trungpa. He was a really respected lama from Tibet who came to Boulder and started Naropa University. And he was behaving in a way you don’t expect from a monk. He was sleeping with women, getting drunk, acting crazy, and crashing cars, and it was all part of his teaching.

Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?

I don’t know. No, I guess not. But I do mediate regularly. Maybe. It’s like the Jewish thing, too. You meet a Jew who doesn’t give a fuck about Judaism, but still identifies as a Jew. I am that way with Buddhism and Judaism. I’m a Jew, but I’m not a Jew. I’m a Buddhist, but I’m not a Buddhist. But, to answer your question: No, I’m not a Buddhist.

You are many things at once.

Yes. And I’m nothing.

Nice one. So I hear you’re really into keeping notebooks.

I am. I keep everything in them. I love notebooks. I love going to stationary stores. When I touch a good notebook, I feel very creative. I keep one in my back pocket for reminders and phone numbers and lists of things I have to do. That’s like a daily notebook. And then I have one with general creative ideas that aren’t quite focused yet, but that I’ll eventually come back to. And then when I actually start working on a project, I start a notebook that’s devoted exclusively to that project.

Starting a musical project for me is like an adventure. You have no idea how it will turn out; all you have is an idea. Conventional success is defined as money and recognition. But, creatively, I would define success as how well you realize the thing you envisioned. It’s an adventure. Life would be so boring if you knew every detail before it happens. So, with the notebooks, I write everything down as the idea expands and they become a road map.

I was playing an instrument that I didn’t know how to play, on a stage, by myself, at midnight. There were three people in the audience, and one of them was the singer from R.E.M.

Not to sound too corny, but I get really emotional when I look at my old notebooks, like when I look at notebooks from 10 years ago. Sometimes I just read what I was writing at the time, and look back at ideas as they are forming. I think it’s really important to preserve that stuff. If it’s something you’re devoting your life to, you should preserve it. There’s no guarantee that anybody’s ever gonna give a fuck about what you do, so you gotta give a fuck for yourself.

I think I’m too terrified of past versions of myself to want to document them.

Me too, but you gotta get over it. I have old notebooks full of poetry and stuff, but no one will ever see that, that’s for damn sure. I opened up a book the other day from when I first moved to New York City, where I wrote down a bunch of goals, and I realized a lot of that shit had come true.

How many notebooks do you think you have? I’m picturing a room lined with shelves holding hundreds of notebooks, like some sort of scene from a movie about a serial killer.

Oh no, no, no, it’s not that bad. If I ever did anything really horrible, there’s no indication in these notebooks.

The notebooks of Jeremiah Cymerman: avant-garde musician, serial killer.

That’s actually something I’ve thought about. Think about all these improvisers and weirdo electronic musicians. What if one of them did something terrible, like kill someone? How compelling would that be for the news to then go and hear the music that person was making?

Oh, shit. That’s a really funny idea. That’s probably the only reason the mainstream media would ever try to make sense of some of this music.

True. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that none of us ever do actually kill anyone.