Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose
Emerging as a leader, Whitecage began to develop an approach that combined free playing with sketches, basic roadmaps to give his groups jumping off points for extended improvisations that still managed to stay somehow true to the source material. “Everything is there but the return,” explains Whitecage. “I’ll write the beginning. For example, I have a piece called ‘End Piece,’ and all I did was write the beginning, you never go back to it. When I was playing with Anthony Braxton that’s what we’d do when we’d play standards and he was playing piano. We’d take any standard and play it but never go back to the head, we’d do everything we could with the tune and then start another tune and do the same thing.”
The majority of Whitecage’s ensembles avoid the use of chordal instruments. “The thing I don’t want to play is the chords,” Whitecage says, “because one chord leads to another chord and then you play it again and it leads to the same chord. But I can play the same tune six days in a row and be totally different each time I play it, because I’m building my chords not from the pattern, more from the melody. I can always hear the melody when I am playing, no matter what I’m playing. And Dominic [Duval] does too, it’s almost like telepathy, we could be away from the melody for eighteen or twenty bars and all of a sudden we’re together again, at a different place in the head.
And all this stuff happens naturally. If I’m playing ‘Dolphin Dance’ I’m playing it, I never leave the tune and play something else; otherwise I wouldn’t call it ‘Dolphin Dance.’ We know where the tune is all the time. A lot of this new music is people just fishing, they go on fishing expeditions and hope something will turn up. I see a lot of guys that are noodling around for twenty minutes and then they get very excited because something happens. The trick is to start off with something happening, and that’s what we try to do.”
Electronics and Ducks on Acid
With an interest in electronics that dates back to the ‘60s Whitecage has, in recent years, been spending more time creating a rig that allows him to create a virtual one-man orchestra. The first CD to really explore this avenue is ‘03’s Ducks on Acid , where Whitecage utilizes a complicated and ever-changing series of effects to create loops and build harmonies. The result is strange and unusual. “You can set up certain rhythms with the echoes,” explains Whitecage, “and let that be your rhythm section. I use guitar pedals because you can do everything with your feet, leaving your hands free for your horn; I’ve always been interested in pitch shifters, playing more than one note at a time has always fascinated me.
"I grew up in a house full of pianos and I ended up playing the sax—I’ve got one note where I’ve got to do everything. So having a pitch shifter to create harmonies, that is very cool. Also, I use a seven-minute looping device, so you can put something in—you can have a riff, you can have a whole tune, or you can make a bass line if you want, and you put it in this loop and it just keeps playing, so then you can go on to doing other things. I have two of these looping devices and another one that’s just a delay. You learn by playing—I played them every day for a couple of years and you learn, by playing them, just how to control them the same way you learn how to control anything else.
“I played every day,” continues Whitecage, “I’d just sit down and take an hour and explore it, and Ducks on Acid is the culling out of about a year's worth of explorations. Nothing was written down for it. I tried to do that a few times, I tried some of my compositions, but it never worked, so it was all just improvised. But I still think of it as composing; I don’t think of myself as an improviser, especially when I’m doing something with the electronics. You know, you’re making a bass line and then you’re putting something on top of the bass line, it’s the same thing as if you’re using a pen and paper except you’re doing it in real time and you’re hearing it. And there’s no going back. Sometimes it gets so thick you go crazy, but you have to be very careful, you have to have your escape route planned. There’s one button on the rig that will make everything fade out, so if I get into too much trouble I know I can hit that button, make everything fade out and then it’s just me and my horn.