Gene Coleman
Interview by Joshua Cody, 1996


Composer Gene Coleman uses quotation, collage, and elements of this nature, which are often associated with "Postmodern" music in his compositions and his performances as a bass clarinetist. He was influenced early on by Anthony Braxton, and with his group, Noamnesia, performs experimental, avant-garde, and modern classical repertoire. In many ways, he seems to have placed himself at the hinge of some very classic oppositions, not to say clichéd: "then" versus "now," in very general terms, and also popular music versus classical music, modern music of the 1950s versus that of the nineteenth century, the United States versus Europe, Chicago versus New York. . . Senior Editor Joshua Cody speaks with Gene Coleman at WNUR-FM in Chicago.

For some years now, you've been performing works of contemporary music--your own and those of other composers--with the Ensemble Noamnesia, which you began in 1987, and in which you continue to perform as a bass clarinettist. This is one of the few ensembles in Chicago devoted to contemporary music, but before we talk about that, I wanted to ask you about the name of the ensemble.

The group was formed, as you said, in 1987, and at that time--less so now, but certainly at that time--there was a lot of music being played in the United States and in Europe that was referred to as "Neoromantic." I thought that, at least in some ways, this was an unfortunate thing--music that sounds like it could have been written fifty or sixty years ago, or more. . . . Aesthetically, this is not appealing to me. The metaphor of "amnesia" referred to fact that these composers were writing music without reflecting upon the different ideas and styles that have occurred since World War II. The title of the ensemble was a reaction to all of that: "no amnesia," then, being the name of a group that was somehow going to take into account all of the musical activity, in its various forms, that has taken place in the past century.

I'd like to talk about your background a little bit. How did you become the leader of this ensemble? You've told me that you didn't really study music in your youth.

Well, it's a mixed bag in my case. I did have musical training from very early on--grade school through high school--but my main interest was in the visual arts. Music was only a second interest. I wasn't playing an instrument that I was particularly interested in at the time, and that played a role in keeping it in the background. I came to Chicago in 1979, to go to the School of the Art Institute, where I studied painting and filmmaking, and I also took some "sound" classes, which the School of the Art Institute offers. In my first semester I took a liberal arts course on the history of Western music, going back to Perotin, Gregorian chant, and following that through the Baroque, and so forth. There was a section of the course where the teacher asked students to bring in any example of music that they felt related in some way to the music that we were studying. This one fellow brought in a recording of Anthony Braxton, performing with Muhal Richard Abrams. These are two experimental jazz musicians, born and raised in Chicago, and were both members of the AACM, which is an organization that's still alive and well in Chicago. Braxton immediately struck me. I don't know how to explain the reaction I had, but it was instantaneous, and I was fascinated.

But nothing dramatic happened after that, really. I was able to get a few of his records, I continued with my studies at the school, but eventually I started finding my way into music. By 1987, I had turned a good percentage of my focus to composing and performing, and since then I've continued to evolve in those directions. So at this point, my activities as a visual artist and as a filmmaker are things I'm still interested in, but they definitely are in the background right now.

But what kind of role do these interests play in your music right now? Are they very strong influences?

Yes, they play very important roles. Very often, I'll construct a diagram, on graph paper, which in some cases can become quite detailed, outlining different kinds of musical elements visually. That graph will serve as a kind of map of the ensuing composition. It will in turn be filtered through other kinds of harmonic procedures, or assimilated with things I've just written down in notebooks. The notion of materials transforming from one state to another in the composition process is something that interests me a lot, and it has a very intuitive appeal for me. Part of what's interesting in the interrelations of these elements is that it's a very open and kind of mysterious territory.

When many people think of "classical music," they will think first of the nineteenth century. That's reflected to some extent in the academy, in the educational system, and in other areas of culture. Is this a mindset that plays a role in your activity as a composer? The presence of a conservatory-type education, for example: you didn't have one, but does it have an impact on what you do?

It plays a strong role in my dealings with the musicians I work with. My training, personally, was rather unorthodox, studying privately with composers after studying at the School of the Art Institute. Certainly not conservatory training, at all. Then, a lot of simply studying music on my own: buying scores, collecting records and CDs and poring over this material--which I would still argue, as far as composition is concerned, is one of the best ways to learn about writing music. But now, a lot of the musicians I work with have had conservatory training. And I'm happy to say that there is a small but steady stream of people that are interested in experimental approaches. They have technical facility, which is very important, at least in the case of my own work; there's also, in a lot of cases, the ability to improvise, or to approach material in a less rigid manner, and I think this is very important, at least in terms of realizing some of the goals in my work. There are certain attitudes towards time and feel in music which are not very feasible for conservatory-trained players who really just know how to read music off a page and are unwilling or very uncomfortable going beyond that. Fortunately, I think there are performers who come along regularly who have the ability to read music very accurately, and that at the same time, in other situations, can go beyond that situation, can play in different idioms and with a greater degree of relaxation, understood in a certain sense. I think this type of talent is especially important now: that, at least in some subtle ways, it can function as a bridge between the "classical" realm and different forms of popular music and popular culture.

You've described your own music as "experimental." How do you regard these late modernists of the 1950s who have taken a leap into experimentation while preserving something relatively traditional and conservative? This preservation, of course, is taken to various extents, and in this regard, I think that Stockhausen is by far one of the least doctrinaire of this group.

Definitely. I think Luigi Nono's music is a particularly strong example of someone escaping different levels of doctrinairism while always retaining a very strong relationship with past Western musical models. A number of the late works become textural and ambient to an extraordinary degree, and yet at the same time the references to medieval music and Renaissance music are still there, buried and abstracted.

This is very much a profile of the continuity of European culture. That's something we don't have here. I won't say that that's unfortunate, necessarily: we have lots of other elements to be happy to embrace. But in terms of an educational system, in terms of how our media works, our communication systems, we have a very different set of circumstances here which don't allow for that kind of continuity. It's socially impossible.

One of the reasons we started the monthly "Face the Music" concerts here in Chicago was to establish a regular forum for all concepts of contemporary, classical, experimental musicÐhowever one might like to subdivide these things into different categories. There's indeed a wealth of material, some of which mixes different idioms, as we would identify them now. We also perform works of Stockhausen, Berio, Luigi Nono. What's important is the idea of the open forum.

The reason I feel that way is simply that a lot of this music takes very different stances towards what the listener's relationship to his or her own environment can be. There are new ideas about time, which are expressed in these works. Many of these concepts are fenced off and made unavailable to a large part of society. This is a problem which I think needs to be confronted.

We need, aesthetically, something more than pop music, rock music, the various forms that get played and supported with millions of dollars by the record industry, and are a self-perpetuating kind of organism which hinders the nourishment and the well-being of society. We need different forms of music.

Presenting the kinds of music we perform, on a regular basis, provides an important opportunity to experience something that's actually different--and not merely a commercially labeled form of difference. Perhaps the cynical view would see a trajectory that, as far as popular music and popular culture are concerned, leads to a situation where music and commerce continue to interact until they're indistinguishable. In other words, McDonald's commissions Michael Jackson to write an opera or a song cycle which all deal with McDonald's hamburgers as the subject matter. These, then, get played on the radio, and you have eliminated this cumbersome step of indirectly appropriating Michael Jackson's music for commercial purposes. When I express this idea to people, they usually consider it extremely cynical. On the other hand, even in this worst-case scenario, there is the prospect of a continuing, developing, extremely underground type of culture: something that exists out of view of the media. [For more on Michael Jackson, see our interview with Paul Lansky. -Ed]

There's always going to be a lot of interesting things that happen below the surface. There will always be alternatives, there will always be an underground.

Do you find any optimistic signs in popular music itself?

Yes, I do. I find a lot of rap music really interesting, musically: the rhythms, the use of time in a lot of cases, is a lot more interesting than in other popular forms. Perhaps, too, in the future, people will be less enamored with the cult of popularity and television images, and will feel a greater need for personal discovery, for immediacy in a more direct experiential type of way.

This interview was taped and broadcast live by WNUR-FM Evanston/Chicago. Copyright 1996 by Joshua Cody.