Photograph by Nick Krebill
Ian Nagoski : Musician & Writer
Interview by Tom Boram 7/25/01
Ian Nagoski a musician and writer who recently moved to this town Baltimore from Philadelphia. Without too much time passing, this maker of very slow music moved very unslowly into the perpetration of expansive mind-altering music related activities here. He fell in with "light musician" Dan Conrad and joined the mysterious and mythological "Jewel-Like Uvula" with Dan, Julia Hamid and Catherine Pancake. He added an entirely new spice to the Red Room collective, curating various shows to sold-out audiences, including a night of sound and light with collaborating video and sound artists, a night of never before seen Sun Ra film footage, and a night of legendary record collector/musicologist Dick Spotswood. Lately he's been contributing his music-blissed writings to various publications including the Wire and Halana. there are many other things this genuine lover of life has done in the last year, so many I don't even know where to begin. Ian and I hung out recently, listening to 78's and drinking spiked lemonade. Many of the things we discussed that evening led to the topics of this interview. -- Tom Boram
Tom Boram: The night Dick Spotswood played his beautiful rare records at the Red Room, you began the night by announcing all of the up and coming redroom events before announcing Dick. Dick joked that all of the coming events were very "cutting edge" and that he was going to present the "blunt edge" by playing some of his records. Although this was a joke, I knew that there was no rift between the interest in experimental sounds and also in rare/ethnic/rural 78rpm records. What is the connection between experimental music and obscure traditional musics?
Ian Nagoski: The contrasts of new/old, hip/unhip, nontraditional/traditional don't occur to me much. I forget that people see things that way, always assuming that genre classifications are shorthand. (Spottswood struck me as being sort of fuddy-duddying-it-up at that moment. He's entitled.) What I am interested in - what I believe the Red Room is, in part, about - is creativity at its origin. If you could zoom out as far as you can from human music making, you might see it as primates creating sound patterns (artificial sound pressure environments, sometimes) for seemingly no reason. You could site the uses which the monkeys have for the sound patterns (dancing, religious experience, expression of values), none of which seem especially utilitarian, but looking at the overall picture it seems incredible that every human culture would have some form of sound pattern play (or light pattern play or olfactory chemical play or sexual play...) This whole branch of play is the most incredible, wonderful, heartbreakingly beautiful thing that people do. Both "historical music" and the contemporary avant garde have the benefit of helping to make the activity of music-making more knowable. The patterns of old music are transparent since they are unclouded by contemporary technology and stylistic references; avant garde music may also have transparent patterns or, in some cases, may be so opaque that the sounds or the motivations for making them become, like Jobim's line, "a truckload of bricks in the bright morning sun."
The motivations for making a piece of music must be seen through. (I sound like a politician or a preacher making these pronouncements.) Once you peel away the surface of music, you will see whether or not it is nourishing. If you are not willing to do it yourself, time will do it for you. As the style of the times change the music you play will become more and more transparent. Time will show the wiser. Know what I mean?
If I sound like a musical Unitarian, it's because I'm not interested in talking politics and economics right now.
Tom Boram: How did you begin playing slow moving electronic music? do you ever want to perform music that's really fast? in your opinion, how is time and music related? how do you see yourself fitting into a collaboration with other musicians who are improvising?
Ian Nagoski: Ug. Long story.
I played in a psyche-garage-punk band in high school (heavy "White Light/White Heat", Husker Du, and Spacemen 3 influences). We were energetic, but my friend and band mate Dan Bailey and I had already articulated to each other by ninth grade that music without chord changes and with a kind of timbral "thickness" fulfilled a personal, emotional need for both of us. So, we rocked hard, but practically standing still in terms of chords and patterns. The final incarnation (around age 19) of that band overlapped with the next band where I was able to abandon songs and just improvise. (I had gone through an emotional crisis which had lead me to feel that playing songs was dishonest. It felt like acting. I was pretty messed up.)
I love to talk about the improv trio I had with Chris Rice and Jason Glover. Those guys and that time in my life meant a lot to me. But, I'll make it brief: In the midst of discovering Asian classical and ceremonial musics, Japanese noise (C.C.C.C., Merzbow), free music (Ornette, AMM, Keiji Haino), and soundfield composers (Niblock, Young), we started a basement band which involved several hours a week of electronic improvisation, very much in the style of AMM or MEV. Long, long sessions. (Lots and lots of beer...) The thing that we liked best, though, was finding sounds which would act strangely in the room, psychoacoustic effects, and kind of riding them so that they would create exaltation or disorientation. When the band spilt, I tried to find a way of continuing with that kind of music on my own. That's the story of how I started making long pieces and came to be drawn to slow changes.
Jason and I and a few friends used to listen to everything together--hours with our heads buried between speakers, or spent out by the power transformer, listening for small changes in the environment, or down by the creek listening to the cicadas, listening to the moment unfold in dense patterns. That's what I always wanted - to be in a cicada music band. So, this kind of music refers, in part, to listening environmentally.
But more than that, I don't really have any interest in playing fast because there is something very specific that I really want to do with music which requires this sense of time, and I am determined to do it. I could talk forever about the specifics, but suffice it to say that I'm committed. It's like if you are vegetarian and someone asks you if you'd like some meat, obviously, if you're mind is focused on being vegetarian, you're not even slightly interested.
Collaborating is really, really hard for me, sometimes very alienating. I think it's important to try and not become a weird hermit, but I just have to hold firm that "these are the sounds that I make and this is how I feel" and do my thing. Of course, everyone else (except for Chris Rice, my old band-mate and a video artist who I collaborated with a lot for several years) moves much, much faster, so it's hard for me to "play off" of them. They go through many changes, and I'm still back there working on one change. But I like improvisations where there are parallel layers of time which suggest a fundamental, unstated time. People in a room together are all feeling time, its motion, differently. Anyway, if the other musicians don't like it, all I can do is smile and apologize.
Regarding time, I'll say that the effects of sound and light in time and their relationships to emotions or states-of-mind (which are the lense through which we perceive time) are the areas I'm most concerned with as a musician. The subjectiveness of the experience of time and the shared experiences of music in relation to rhythm, "timbre", and frequency relationships (harmony/melody) are an endless source of fascination.
Tom Boram: In the last year, what was the most disillusioning thing that happened to you that was related to music?; what was the most reconfirming?
Ian Nagoski: All of the disillusionments and disappointments of note came from the harsh realities of survival in relation to my determination to make a certain kind of music and from my failure to do things which I set out to do.
The most affirming moments have all come from family and friends who have given me so much understanding and support and from the musicians and impresarios who I respect who have tried to advocate and include me in the music world. There have been half a dozen moments in the past year when I have come close to weeping at the beautiful and sympathetic things people have said about my music.
Tom Boram: I want to play a name game: is bad music noise? is good noise music?; i mean, what in the hell is music? Just for fun, can you try to slap a working definition on it? How much intention does there have to be in a sound or sounds for you to enjoy it or be effected by it?
Ian Nagoski: Maybe you anticipate my answer that I don't really recognize noise in my own experience. R. Murray Schaefer's definition of noise is "unwanted sound", and there isn't any in my life. I like listening to things. Listening to the sense world is one of my few points of contact to reality.
I'm better at understanding people's intentions in making sound than I am in understanding "the universe's" intentions in making sound, but both produce interesting results. I have had some good experiences of listening through people into larger issues. Probably you have too.
Music is a mysterious vibratory manifestation of karma (through dharma) in maya. How's that for a working definition?
Tom Boram: You are basically a recent transplant to Baltimore. What kinds of things separate the ethos of baltimore musicians from those in other communities you've lived/worked in? pro's and con's to living here, too.
Ian Nagoski: I love Baltimore. It a wonder to be somewhere where the messy, human, problematic, sticky, gray, and unknowable are embraced with such vigor by so many people-where there's a strong aesthetic tradition of "the other." There's relatively little interest in style and surface here, which makes me really happy. And the mix of people is great. People greet each other on the street. It's the nicest place I've ever lived.
Tom Boram: To wrap it up, kind of a biggy, i'm not sure how to word it, but, what is the ultimate goal of experimental music? What bridges does it cross that no other musics can cross? What is experimental music limited to? anything?
Ian Nagoski: "Experimental music" isn't really a genre; it's just a catch-all phrase for a wide variety of stuff, which is hard to talk about or market. I like the aesthetic (which was articulated to me by Mike Chaiken and John Berndt, each in their own way) of a branch of music, which is transrational and subversive, which can be world-view-altering or -destroying. That appeals to me. Of course, organizing "normal" things can do the same thing. And I don't mean collage (which doesn't appeal to me particularly unless it is done with incredible personal vision as in Joseph Cornell's boxes). But curating and re-presenting consensus-reality culture with insight (as in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music) can be completely mind-shattering.
Tom Boram: If you thought about your favorite old 78, how risky was it, was it experimental? for you, is beauty on or beneath the surface of music?
Ian Nagoski: Well, if a piece of music is REALLY working, the surface and the substance are totally integrated and inseparable. But the important things are for a musicians to be committed, creative, to have integrity and ideas, to be honest and self-aware--those kinds of things. The degree to which he or she can realize those qualities will influence how risky the music is, how much vitality it has, no matter what other aesthetic criteria or conventions are in play.
2001 Violets for Your Furs, edition (...), solo one-sided LP (forthcoming).
2001 for Jason Glover, Halana, VHS video by Chris Rice (edition of 50 copies). Available through Anomalous Records.
1999 Warm Coursing Blood, Colorful Clouds for Acoustics, solo compact disc. (posted on the web as hi-fi mp3s by Aharon Varady at http://phobos.serve.com/ian_nagoski/)