John Seman: The Story of Monktail
I remember, at one point, I would go to the record store and I used to buy heavy metal, rap and whatever, and then eventually I started getting into the Kronos Quartet and the Black Angels (Nonesuch, 1990) album. Song X (Nonesuch, 1985) somehow got into the mix there and I remember bringing that to my band director-it was [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, [guitarist] Pat Metheny, [drummer] Denardo [Coleman], and [bassist ] Charlie Haden-and I was like, "This is fantastic! What is this?" I didn't understand it, and he goes, "Oh, that record, I hate that record. When that record came out I threw it in the trash." That was the first time that I started to deviate. I was like, ,"No I really think this is fantastic." I didn't understand it, so I listened to a lot of Ornette, but I was still kind of a traditionalist. I listened to a lot of Bird [saxophonist Charlie Parker], I was getting into [trumpeter] Miles [Davis], and the jazz band stuff was all [pianist] Count Basie stuff.
In high school, I got to take some private classes in composition and arranging with the band director and with the director of the music program at that school, which is an unheard of luxury now. But I would stay either during last period or after school and it was like music detention with the teachers, and we would go over orchestration, we would go over theory and harmony exercises, transposition, transcription, and it was a fantastic education that led me to apply to a number of music schools. Then I ended up going to the Oberlin Conservatory as a composition major. I wrote a bunch of music and about halfway through my time at Oberlin I switched from a composition major to a minor and developed what they call an independent major, which was in ethnomusicology and double bass.
My ears and eyes were open to composition performance ritual and the social aspects of music in the broader global cultural context. College is a very isolating place, especially in music school. There is a lot of time in the practice room, there is a lot of time in the library, and I think understanding music on a global scale, even intimately within specific cultures, was a way to connect the feelings I had about music and about interacting with musicians.
That early experience as a teenager playing in that jazz band and playing with all of the musicians opened me up to that musical experience that is beyond any other social exercise. It led me as an adult to understand the climate and culture of improvised music, which is just as broad and varied as any social context, but it all happens within music. Just in Seattle, I can imagine the different neighborhoods of improvised music and they are all rich, full, diverse, growing cultural hives, like any other cultural thing like brewing [laughter] or any sort of church thing. They all have their little rituals and customs and cultures and personalities. I think maybe sometimes that is hard to see. I would say that was the start. There was a little spark there where I started to, if not completely understand it, to look for it and begin to at least appreciate it in my own experience.
I graduated from Oberlin and spent some time traveling around, but ended up in Washington, DC, doing a year of graduate school at the University of Maryland as an ethnomusicologist and simultaneously getting into field recording. The history of field recording in ethnomusicology led me to examine a series of historical recordings and understand the equipment involved, like a DAT versus bringing a crank phonogram. That led me to the world of archiving and preservation, which is what I was doing as a gig working in studios, and then I ended up moving to Seattle. And then shortly after I moved to Seattle, Mark moved to Seattle
AAJ: When was this?
JS: This was in, like, 1999. I graduated from school in the mid-nineties and spent a number of years knocking around DC, sort of being an academic, but I also worked in a record store and I worked in a couple of studios, but I wasn't playing. Ever since high school I have tried to record every rehearsal, every gig, every performance, every little moment, almost saving it up for those quiet times when there isn't a lot going on. You can go back through the tapes and listen and re-experience it. With improvised music, so much happens in the moment. But if you don't get to look at it again, I mean, imagine if with all of the great work of art you only got a fleeting look at them. You didn't get to sit and examine them.
I was working with different ways of recording, multi-tracking or stereo recording, whether it was with a little walkman-style cassette recorder or a number of mikes around the room. By the time I moved to DC I had seven or eight years' worth of cassettes, DATs, CDs, and reel-to-reels. We got a reel-to-reel machine in the early nineties and I put a ton of stuff on that.