Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus
AAJ: You studied under Jimmy Heath who is thought of as more of a straight out bopper. Have you had a chance to play with him since your own eclectic musical identity has been formed?
RN: No, you know it's funny you should ask that because Jimmy is way more of a straight-ahead guy than his brother. We played this festival in the mid '90s just with the Passengers somewhere in Holland. Percy was on the festival and we all hung out at this bar afterwards and did this kind of hip-hop, Phish kind of thing. The guys in the rhythm section, everybody was blowing and goofing around; he hung with us the whole night and he heard our gig. And he loved it. He was really cool about it.
No... I've never even tried to play this stuff for Jimmy because he wouldn't like it. He's just not about that stuff. He was a great teacher, he was a great guy to have around but I was 22 or 23 and things went a different way. I learned a lot from the guy.
You know that's one thing that I have finally accepted: the fact that there's a lot of ways to do this stuff and to see music and to make sense of art; a lot of them are mutually exclusive.
AAJ: Aside from the many musical situations you have also tried your hand at acting in films by Chantal Akerman, Jim Jarmusch and Elaine May. How did you first get into acting and is it something you have desire to continue doing?
RN: Well actually that was part of the association of the Lizards and stuff like that. Jim Jarmusch had a band called the Del-Byzanteens at the time; if you were a filmmaker you had a band and if you were in a band, a lot of the time you did films (like me and John). People who were in that art world, in the downtown theater world... the idea was things bleeding into each other. Now it's much less that. Next came the '90s, where it was really about the experts; experts in writing scripts, experts at this, experts at that. Back then it was like you wrote your thing and then you performed it and you wrote the music to it. I always thought of it like Chaplin, I always loved Chaplin's stuff he was a big influence on me, he did that; you know he wrote his own music and did all that. I liked the soulfulness of that.
I am acting now, but I don't want act in somebody else's thing; I studied acting with this woman Mira Rostova. My brother died when I was young and I kind of spaced and banged my arm and that came up to be a problem when I was about 25, it looked like I wasn't going to be able to play anymore so I started acting again and I studied with Mira. She had been Montgomery Cliff's teacher. She had this whole idea of the fact that people are driven to say something... you not speaking about things, when you're doing a lament or you're doing a surprise, there are certain things that you're just doing. Certain emotions just force you to do things naturally; just doing those words... they come from you in an organic way. I think when I am doing my poems I am doing that. So I feel like I am satisfied... to say the things I want to say.
When I was going to Mira, I used to play ballads for her because I thought that I was speaking the words when I would be playing them. I wanted to sort of transition the idea of acting as language, that the language of words and the language of music were essentially not separate things. That's I think a whole thing that's been an evolving idea for me.
AAJ: You received two meet-the-composer grants to create work for children and also teach at the Institute of Collaborative Education. How does your life as an artist impact your teaching technique?
RN:I got these grants and worked on these pieces with kids, who were immigrants or second generation... Indian, Chinese or Korean, where I taught out in Queens. We made these pieces that were based on their experiences. I then had them even sort of score their texts. So I got really early into doing that kind of stuff.
AAJ: The New York Transit Museum has just commissioned you to do a piece. What is the nature of this work?
RN: What I am doing now is the coolest thing that I could ever do. The Banlieues Bleues festival in France hired Sotto Voce to play. It's a major jazz festival, but they have a real outreach program to the community and it's in the suburbs of Paris, which had those riots, where there are a lot of North African people. I taught teachers to teach their kids to write. Since I had done my manuscript about the subway I thought, "Well, why don't they read about the metro." We found about ten texts, the best of the texts of all these kids, and have scored them. Then I went there and performed them.
We had a beat box chorus that Napoleon [Maddox] conducted and a regular chorus that Tim (Kiah) conducted and then this community orchestra played the music that I wrote. And it was such a gas that I came back and at this crazy high school where I teach at, Institute for Collaborative Education, we have kids from all type of backgrounds and they all take the subway so we had them write their stories. The English teacher, Jeffery Romanoff, who had these kids in a group, they wrote their stories and I had my kids in my band score them. So then I took twenty of my kids to Paris with the Jazz Passengers and 40 kids from France were on stage and we did this whole thing with Magic Malik (he's an amazing flautist from Guadalupe), he played with us there... he did two nights and we did a whole week. We are going to do it again here; 25 French kids are going to come stay at my kids' houses. The Transit Museum sponsored the free concert at Cooper union on May 21st.
A friend of mine who has done film for years from the early avant-garde video days named Andy Gurion did video for it. There's all these subway samples and stuff. It's called Subway Moon.
The record I am going to make for Enja is going to be called Subway Moon and it's going to be just the Sotto Voce part. That's the shame of it. There is going to be some film that the kids did of the two things, of the New York and the Paris. I don't know what we'll end up editing together; it's a shame because it's such a beautiful thing. But there's a piece in French, they did a thing on it for BBC News Service, where the kids are interviewed.
I have only had teaching jobs where I could still go on tour. So it's not like it decided now I'm teaching period, I probably tour or two or three months of the school year and in the summer; altogether I am probably on tour for three or four months a year. But they know me as a professional musician; I had Debbie Harry play with my school band...I try to make them understand that the art that they're making is alive in the world now, it's not preparing them for being an artist later. But they're making art this second.