Malcolm Goldstein

I nterview with Dan Warburton
April 28th 2006




Malcolm Goldstein (b. March 27, 1936, Brooklyn, New York). American composer, now resident in both Canada and the USA, of mostly chamber and electroacoustic works that have been performed throughout the world; he is also active as an improviser and violinist. Mr. Goldstein attended Columbia University from 1952-59, where he studied composition with Otto Luening for one year and where he earned his BA and MA. He later studied violin privately with Antonio Miranda in New York City from the mid- to late 1960s. As a performer of new music, he has been active as an improviser, violinist and vocalist and has also played various found and natural objects, as well as other instruments. As a violinist, he performed with the Judson Dance Theatre in New York from 1962-64, the New York Festival of the Avant Garde in the 1960s and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York in the 1960s. Since then, he has performed primarily as a soloist, both in improvised and notated music. With Philip Corner and James Tenney he co-founded the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in 1963, a new music group that performed until 1970. He later served as director of the New Music Ensemble of Dartmouth College in the 1970s and of the Hessischer Rundfunk Ensemble für Neue Musik in Frankfurt/Main in the 1990s. As a writer, he has contributed articles about improvisation to various journals, notably Perspectives of New Music, many of which appear in From Wheelock Mountain: Music and Writings by Malcolm Goldstein (1977, in Pieces: A Profile, edited by Michael Byron). In addition, he wrote the book Sounding the Full Circle: Concerning Music Improvisation and Other Related Matters (1988, self-published, now available through the McGill University Project On Improvisation). Mr. Goldstein was commissioned by the Charles Ives Society to prepare critical editions of Symphony No. 2 in 1976 and String Quartet No. 2 in 2002, both by Charles Ives. Frog Peak publishes some of his music.


How old were you when you started the violin?

About eight years old. My brother played a little classical piano and mother did some show tunes, but it wasn't a musical family at all. I was supposed to be a doctor, and I upset them by going into music.

Did you study the standard classical repertoire?

Yeah, all the usual stuff. The stuff the young people are playing now should be thrown out – all that Wieniawski, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps.. what I call monkey music. When I was a student I studied with a guy from Vienna, who loved Fritz Kreisler – you've gotta be careful how you pronounce that. Recently I was told it's pronounced Hhkhreisler because if not people think you're talking about Chrysler, the car (laughs) – we did all those things. Then I stopped, but I kept playing. I studied for a year, then quit again. I studied with a few famous teachers, but it was basically what I call the European approach. You start off with this étude and then go on to the next one, go through a certain sequence of pieces of music, everything classified and getting progressively harder, technically -

Until you're Paganini.

That's right. I never reached that stage! That never made sense to me, so I kept quitting. When I was 27 I found a fantastic teacher, whose name was Antonio Miranda, who was marvellous. He did things that no traditional teacher would do, like, we were studying the Bach sonatas, and usually a teacher would say: "You don't understand that passage" or this or that was "out of tune", or "the rhythm is wrong" and everything is no, no, no you're bad, bad, bad. Antonio said: "In the Bach sonata what part do you feel good about?" I said, here. He said: "Practise that a lot, and let it teach everything else." And that changed my whole perspective. He had me play a three octave scale, ten slow bows a note, up and down. I heard the violin. He had me write accompaniment to Kreutzer Etudes, he had me analyse the Bach. Later I opened him up to improvisation and he did a piece for one of our Tone Roads concerts.

When did you start composing, and what were your early pieces like??

In my first year at college I heard the Juilliard Quartet play the complete Beethoven quartets and decided I wanted to be a composer. It seemed so wonderful. When I was at university all my music sounded like Alban Berg. (laughs)

Why, were you writing serial music already?

No, I was always a little bit ornery. I've always worked intuitively. I compose by sound, and what I feel, what it sounds like, does it work.. At the time – I was a kid, about 21, 22 – there were concerts at the Composers Forum, and some people attacked me: "You just do anything you want!" Otto Luening, my teacher at Columbia, was kind of the moderator, he jumped in and said: "Well for some people that's a sign of genius, for others it shows you're nothing." No, I never worked with twelve tone music. It didn't interest me.

Luening is best known today as a pioneer of electronic music. Did you also work on that with him?

At that time, because of certain musicologists at Columbia, especially one who will remain unnamed, electronic music was forbidden. It was not part of the syllabus. Luening and Ussachevsky didn't even have a place – they were given a tiny space in the caretaker's cottage in the far corner of the school. In the late 50s they got money to be shared with Princeton from the Ford Rockefeller people to build an analog computer studio, and I actually helped build that space. That was uptown, and then everything changed. There was money and they were associated with another school, and I ended up working at the studio. But when I was a student Luening wasn't really important to me as an electronic composer, even though he was already working with it, in a very simple way. All we had was a small room in the basement of McMillan Theater [now the Miller Theater – DW] with Ampex tape recorders, sine and square wave generators, bandpass filters and a box that was about two metres long and a foot wide. That was our echo chamber. I did some pieces, but I wasn't interested in electronic music when I first began. I did though have the honour of working with Varèse when he came down to rework some of the concrete passages in Déserts. That was at the end of the 50s, but he was still reworking parts of the piece.

What do you remember of those sessions?

He was trying things out, asking me what it would sound like if we brought up the treble here and there, accent that part. Some people have written about Varèse, about his fuzziness of hearing as he got older, and lack of clarity – and I'm sorry: I worked with this man and he knew exactly what he wanted. Later we played Ionisation with the Tone Roads ensemble [at the New York Festival of the Avant-Garde], and I can tell you he had very good ears.

When did you first meet James Tenney?

In 1957 at a composers' conference in Bennington College. He played the complete Concord Sonata by Ives, marvellously. But I knew the piece so well already I told him he played a wrong note! (laughs) One of those very high harmonic notes in "The Alcotts".

How come you knew the piece so well? It wasn't exactly well known at the time.

One of my jobs before I took the job in the electronic music studio was putting books and records back on the shelves in the music library. I learned many things they never taught us in school..

So that was John Kirkpatrick's old 1948 Columbia recording [of the Concord Sonata]?

Yes. It's fantastic. That should be re-released on compact disc, because there was a sense of authority between him and the composer which is lost, and that's very sad. I worked with Kirkpatrick later when I did the first edition of Ives' Second Symphony. I've also edited the Second String Quartet. That's finished now.

How did you go about that?

Oh, you go blind! He wrote very fast, every night when he came home from work, until he had heart trouble. There are lots of crossings out, and often he doesn't mark changes of accidentals, and he very rarely puts – and I don't either in the edition – phrasings and bowings. He very rarely puts even dynamics. My edition is very much an Urtext; I want the musicians to think about what they're doing. I show them things which are debatable – is that an A or a B? – and let them decide. I enjoyed doing it, but I nearly went blind.

So my old recording of the Second Quartet is no good?

None of them are correct. There are so many problems. For example, [in the manuscript] there are about fifteen measures of the third movement that are crossed out. Now, sometimes it's hard to tell when Ives crosses it out if he wants to keep it – sometimes he changes his mind – but here it's clear he wanted it thrown away. It's basically a very slight variation on the same thing and it sounds absurd. And yet in the first printed edition it's all there and people played it.

So the world is still waiting for a recording of your edition?

That's right. I finished editing it about two years ago. I still have to meet up with the head editor, who has to check the work. And then it has to go to the printers. Everything takes time. I hope I see before the end of my life!

The Tone Roads Ensemble you formed in 1963 with Tenney and Philip Corner took its name from one of Ives' pieces. Was the idea behind the ensemble to concentrate particularly on American repertoire?

Not really, but at that time nobody ever mentioned Ives or Varèse. They mentioned Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. The United States has a real hangup. We believe real art comes from Europe, and we're just sort of humble followers, which is nonsense. It's an inferiority complex which goes back a long way, and it's sustained by the academics who still think music comes from Europe. At the time of the American Revolution there were fantastic composers like William Billings and Justin Morgan, people who were basically farmers or preachers, but they were writing fantastic music. But the people in the good old Conservatory in Boston decided they had to bring art and culture to the United States and they created the Handel Society. One or two thousand people singing Messiah and that was art. This sense of what culture is is still very ingrained in the US. Now I'm a nice guy, I'm not a dictator, but I really demand that every orchestra plays one piece of Ives, one piece of Varèse, one piece of Cage each year. Not a lot, just one piece. Because that doesn't happen. Audiences don't know the music.

You consider Varèse as a kind of honorary American composer, then?

No, I think of him as a French composer. To me there's a French sound, which is primarily the sound of wind and brass instruments – as opposed to a German sound, which is more sombre.. Horns, violas.. Of course, in the United States we mix everything! (laughs) No, with Tone Roads we set out to play what we thought were the classics of twentieth century music: Ives, Varèse, Cage, Cowell, Ruggles, Messiaen.. mostly American music, actually. The first concert was at Columbia. It was Jim Tenney and Philip Corner playing piano pieces and accompanying some Ives songs, and I also invited Paul Zufofsky and Gilbert Kalish and they did [Ives'] Fourth Violin and Piano Sonata, which for me isn't that interesting. The second one is fantastic. From then on we moved downtown to the New School for Social Research, and we just did concerts whenever we felt an impetus to do a concert. The first concerts were what we called the classics, and then we began to incorporate more contemporary material, including our own. It was a very loose kind of organisation – we didn't have any money. Essentially people played for nothing. We chose the pieces that interested us, and then I'd go to Juilliard and would find people who wanted to play. They did it purely out of interest. We charged one dollar for entrance, and if you couldn't afford that it was free. After several rehearsals and a concert musicians might make $5. (laughs)

You mentioned Cage above. When did you first discover his music?

Actually, back in the 50s I was against his music. The trouble was I'd never heard it! I was one of those hundreds or thousands of people who heard about his ideas and decided it wasn't music! I didn't know one single piece of his, I don't think I'd even read anything he'd written. (laughs)

So which piece changed your mind?

I think the first piece I saw was the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. And I thought it was fantastic.

Were you at the premiere in 1958?

No, I didn't go to that. Actually that's not a good performance. John worked with the musicians, some of whom I know, to find sounds that interested them, but they did things that are outside the score. He had the same problem many times. I was also at the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis, under Leonard Bernstein, in New York. It was horrible. I'm a violinist, and I can tell you the most arrogant people in the world are violinists. These guys were disgusting, they were just playing Mozart cadenzas, it was horrible. I don't like all John's music, I should say. Some pieces don't interest me. The Freeman Etudes don't interest me. He wrote them for Paul Zufofsky, and they really reflect the person he worked with.

Have you played the later number pieces for violin?

Yes, there's a Japanese-American sculptress who lives in Los Angeles called Mineko Grimmer and John actually wrote a violin piece to go with one of her sculptures, One6. Her sculpture is a huge triangle of ice, in which there are embedded pieces of stone. And it drips, over hours. And you're playing these long tones, and the ice drips into water. And there also pieces of metal floating in the water, so sometimes you get plop, sometimes you get ping.

No one's released a recording of that piece with the sculpture yet though, have they?

I don't think so, but I performed it in Japan. With my ensemble in Frankfurt [Hessischer Rundfunk Ensemble for New Music] we recorded several of the Number Pieces. There's probably enough to make a nice disc. But I can only give so much time and attention to Cage because it takes enough time to do my own things.

You've just returned from Vienna, where you premiered two compositions with the Klangforum Wien. How did that commission come about?

One of the musicians there had already worked with me in Frankfurt, where we did a whole festival after John Cage died. So I got a letter inviting me to come and work with them on improvisation. I wrote one piece, What Can Be Said Of Our Differences?, which called for some very extensive improvisation and another which is a transformation of a violin piece I wrote for Morton Feldman, completely rewritten for either orchestra or chamber orchestra. It's the same kind of tonal structure, with different kinds of activities of either sustaining things or adding timbral modulation or taking certain tones and improvising with them. That piece is called A Cultivation Of Field; field as in feld in German, meaning Feldman, and cultivation meaning us developing the piece.

What was the original violin piece like?

I was at a performance for John Cage in Los Angeles, and Morty was supposed to come out and read something, and John announced that Morty had recently died. I think very highly of his music, so I wrote a piece in his memory. It was based on the letters of Feldman's name, but I can't remember how I did it now. I remember the first sound is the F natural on the D string and the F sharp high up on the A string, and the G natural is the harmonic on the G string, which if you push down you get an A flat. So the whole piece is a sort of expanding process. Once I got that sound texture on the violin the whole piece became clear.

How was the orchestral version received?

Very well, I think. My friend Radu Malfatti came along to the concert, and he liked the first piece, the Feldman piece, but not the second. Maybe he's right. I'll have to wait to listen to the recording of it when I get back to Montréal.

What kind of practical difficulties did you encounter with the other piece?

What Can Be Said Of Our Differences? asks them to work with very short improvisations, from thirty seconds to a minute and a half, beginning with certain material and developing aspects of it to end up with a new kind of material. There are other textural activities they have to do, too. But they're not improvisers, as I found out. They didn't have any experience in improvisation. A few did, and they were fine, but many of them didn't. One person kept making the same kind of sound over and over again, and afterwards I asked him what he was doing, and he said he wanted the sound to get higher and go somewhere – but that's not improvisation. As soon as you think like that, you're becoming a composer. Some others who don't improvise much didn't want any limitations at all – they just wanted to play free. I said, no sorry, this is a composition. There's a difference between playing free (which they couldn't do anyway) and having everything written out. For me, the music in between is the most interesting.

So where do you draw that line between improvisation and composition?

It's very simple. As I said, if in the act of doing something you have an idea to do something better, something different, you're already becoming a composer. For me, improvisation is getting into the sound – I have different ideas from many people, I'll admit – you get into the sound, and the sound tells you where to go. You simply follow the sound. If the sound isn't going higher and louder like you want it to, but lower and softer, what are you going to do? Improvisation is being in the present moment, with the sound, in touch with all its nuances, in touch with the energy in your body. There's a play between the two, and the gesture of your body is what makes the sound. After concerts, people often ask me what my technique was, how I made that sound, and I don't know. You do it, and you let it go. It's about being in touch with the present moment. That was a disagreement I had time and time again with John Cage: time doesn't exist in improvisation. When I'm in the sound, it's just present moment, every moment. There's no past and future. So I'm never bored, because it's always interesting, whereas with someone who's always thinking about where the sound's going to go, they're going to get frustrated.

When did you start developing your own idiosyncratic violin techniques? I'm thinking about things like bowing across the fingerboard at different angles, varying bow pressures.. Watching you play I can see the classical technical background but many of the sounds you make are distinctly unorthodox. Where did they come from?

When I worked with the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s that's when everything began to change. That's when I began improvisation. They'd say, run around the room and play, and of course I'd say, play what? "Anything!" They'd say: "Jump up and down!" – and that put me in touch with my body, and space, which was radical. It put me in touch with the reality of life.
I've set myself the challenge of memorizing the Bach sonatas and partitas. I started a few years ago, and it's going pretty well. I'm 70 now, my father died at 90, I have some time. The important thing is my eyes aren't on the page and the music is opening up fantastically – the slow movements of the Bach sonatas are basically written out improvisations. And now the whole improvisation experience of being in touch with the body is now being brought back to Bach. I'm not sure I'll complete the task. I'm not going through in sequence, I'm choosing whichever movement interests me. That reminds me of a funny story with Cage. He wrote the Eight Whiskus for me in 1985. At first he just made a transcription of the songs he wrote for Joan LaBarbara. But I said, when you sing you have vowels and consonants and all the voice textures, and you've somehow gotta get that into the music. So I showed him different bow placements and pressures, and he made a whole system.. every single note is notated. I had to practise! I told him, practising Eight Whiskus is helping my Bach! And I don't know if you know about John, but he wasn't so enamoured of Bach, and when I said that, he said: "Bach needs help." (laughs)

Eight Whiskus is one of several pieces on Sounding The New Violin specially written for you. The disc also includes Trinity, by Ornette Coleman. How did that come about?

When I meet someone whose music I really like I ask them for a piece. Oh by the way that's why I wrote the piece for Feldman too – because Feldman never wrote me one! (laughs) I love Ornette, and his music. He's a very gentle, wonderful person.

Did you see Coleman play when he first arrived in New York at the end of the 50s?

No, the first time was when I worked with him, when we did his string quartet, Time Design, with Denardo playing drums, and he wrote a violin piece for me. That must have been in the 80s. I didn't hear him play live until then. But I remember hearing his Free Jazz LP shortly after it came out in 1960, and that blew my mind. That shook me. I listen to it now and it sounds like classical music, so clear, but at that time it was just wonderful chaos. I mean positively.

Tell us about the piece he wrote for you, Trinity.

Trinity is a collection of pieces he wrote for me. I didn't do all of them on the recording. I chose ones I could get into. They were totally notated. And if I see notes, I play notes. I'm still a trained musician. So I played it, and it was a little square. I played it for Borah Bergman, who's a great friend of mine, and he said: "Open it up a little bit." Then I played it for Ornette, and he told me to open it up more. It's like with Time Design – everyone plays a slow melody, Ornette does what he wants and then all hell breaks loose. We all have our own material, certain pitches, but not in the same sequence. One is a page of slow note lyrical phrases, one is a notated syncopated rhythm. There is a metronome marking on each sectional page but Ornette told us to play at a different tempo from everyone else, so you get the same material collaged together in different ways. It's a beautiful piece. I'd like to get hold of the score again. We played it several times with the quartet sitting in a traditional way, but I think it would be nice to separate the players and have the audience in the middle, so you can hear these different materials.

Do you have any idea what Coleman means by "harmolodics"?

No! He explained, and I listened and nodded my head, and didn't understand. (laughs) But that's all right – I'm sure when I talk to people about improvisation and getting inside the sound they listen and nod their head too.

What do you think of his violin playing?

I was blown away! Everybody else hated it – they said, he can't play the violin! I said, that's playing the violin: everybody plays like so and so, but he's playing like him! Beautiful, fantastic, wild!

Your own discography is quite modest in terms of size. Is there any particular reason for that?

It's not a question of perfectionism – I don't know what the word perfect means – people have approached me about releasing things, like Théo Jarrier [of In Situ, who released Hardscrabble Songs]. When I approach people myself I get no response! (laughs) For me playing the music is the most important thing. I only have so much time. When I was with Barre Phillips down south recently, we recorded. I don't know what we'll do with it. Maybe put out a small edition for friends. But there are also too many recordings out there. The most important thing is playing. Maybe nothing'll come of it in terms of recordings, but every place we've played on this tour we've had a full house. What more can you ask for? There are certain people you just trust – when I met Barre, for the Densités Festival, we met and talked before we played and I knew, I just felt it was going to be fine. We felt such togetherness. It was just total understanding.

How did the Emanem disc with Masashi Harada, Soil, come about?

That's Masashi's doing. I taught at the New England Conservatory in the mid 1960s. Masashi taught there later, and he contacted me about coming to do a workshop and perform with him and his ensemble. He booked the studio and put up all the money for it, chose the pieces and asked me to write a little note for it. I haven't actually listened to the CD yet, I just got it before I came over here.

Is that the first time you've improvised with piano?

No, I've done things before with Michael Snow, and others too. I don't know how you feel about it, being a string player too, but I find the piano is a very touchy thing to play with. Like percussion. I try to choose the people I play with carefully. Matthias Kaul in Germany is fantastic. I played once with Milford Graves and that was wonderful.

I agree with your liner notes to Soil that violin and piano are two completely incompatible instruments. And I like the pieces that really show up that incompatibility.

Exactly. I cannot play Mozart sonatas. I just don't understand them. I'm sure other people can do them beautifully but I don't understand them. These two instruments – what do they have in common? The Bartók pieces are fantastic. As I said, it's the same with percussion. I used to play a lot with David Moss, when he played more percussion. And people said: "Don't you think you should tell David to play softly? We can't hear you." And I said, no, you have to have trust. That's the basis of improvisation – if you don't trust each other you don't play together. I trust David. Sometimes he's going to be loud. Fine. I can be happy playing soft. I don't have to fight him. Or I can join him. His loudness comes not of ego but out of the impetus of the sound, and it'll find its place.

Are you gratified that improvisation, half a century on from the Judson Dance Theater days, is now firmly established as a genre, or practice in its own right?

I may have been naïve, but when I was discovering improvisation with the Judson Dance Theater, I never thought about whether it would open up new possibilities for improvisation. I was just making music. But yes, I think for every conservatory student it would be wonderful to include improvisation as part of the experience. Have you seen Stainer's edition of Corelli's La Folia? It shows how he used to improvise – he was more far out than I was. In the conservatory they basically play dead music and keep it dead. But in Corelli's time if you couldn't improvise you weren't a musician. It would be nice if that quietly seeped back into traditional education.

Why do you think the Judson Dance Theater continues to fascinate art historians?

Well, it was very important. What happened at that time doesn't exist now, and probably won't exist again, because the world is very different now, politically and economically. In a way that was destroyed when people started to think professionally, but at the beginning it was mainly a collection of kids in their late 20s, getting together to do something. It was a collaboration of people on equal terrain, without hierarchies, people coming from different disciplines – dance, music, theater, poetry – and it was concerned with the world we live in. People draw parallels to Cage, but in a way it was different: Cage in his chance way still organised, whereas the Judson Dance Theater was just the pleasure of.. (looks around for an example) the crack in the concrete on this wall, the pleasure of what life is like, the pleasure of Yvonne Rainier's piece with twenty or so people just walking round a space. The beauty of every single person in the world, how they walk, how they do anything. It was a real delight in our lives, and a celebration of the uniqueness of every human being.

As well as the Judson Dance Theater, another thing that usually comes up when you Google "Malcolm Goldstein" is Fluxus.

Oh no, not Fluxus! Philip Corner was Fluxus. Philip now says everything is Fluxus. I said to him, Philip, I am not Fluxus – he says: "Yes you are, everything is Fluxus." I said I'll give you a good reason why I am not Fluxus: when I scratch on the violin I don't want people to think I'm making fun of the violin or making a political statement. I'm making music. He said "OK you're not Fluxus, but everything else is Fluxus." (laughs)

When did you meet Corner?

End of the 50s. Can't remember the exact date, but he was in graduate school with me in Otto Luening's class. So we met, and one of us was carrying a score by Varèse, and the other said, oh you're interested in Varèse. We debate today over who was carrying the score, but of course I think I it was me! (laughs) But we became instant friends, and I introduced him to Jim Tenney. We're often mentioned together, but Philip and Jim and I are three very different people. This is always the problem with what's referred to as "schools" of painters or composers, like the New York School, with Cage, Christian Wolff, Morty Feldman and Earle Brown. All those people were completely different. There was no school. At least with Philip and Jim no one's called us a "school" yet, so that's all right!

But you were associated with Fluxus, weren't you?

Yes, I played their music. I played a piece of Philip's for piano in Carnegie Recital Hall, I forget what it's called, where you have to do some activity until exhaustion. And I did this (mimes elbow clusters) banging on the piano, and the piano lid kept falling down on my arms and I pushed the lid into the piano and broke it and when I got through there was blood all over the piano! (laughs)

Did you play the George Brecht piece where you have to clean the violin?

I never did that one, but I did a series of three concerts later in New York, in the 80s, called "Sounding The New Violin", where I played everything: Wolpe, Cage, a wide panorama of music, and I thought I should do Nam June Paik's piece, you know the one where you raise the violin very slowly and then you smash it. But I couldn't do it. Even with a five-dollar violin, it was totally against my feelings. Like I say, I'm not Fluxus.

A lot of improvised music recently has been relatively quiet, almost as if it's a reaction to the noise pollution of the big cities we find ourselves living in. As someone who's spent many years living in nature, how do you cope with the noise of a big city like Montréal?

Devastating. Yes, it's a shock. When I came here to Paris just recently I went for a walk downtown and the number of people was overwhelming. In Montréal, where I've been living for 14 years, the centre ville is very small, but I don't go there too often. If it were possible to live in my house in Vermont during the winter and get to airplanes, I'd probably do it.

Why did you move to Montréal?

The family divided, and one son stayed with his mother and the other lived with me. When he went on to college I was free to travel, go on tours for three months at a time. Vermont is wonderful but it's up in the woods, so I thought about moving to a city near an airport, and I thought Montréal was the best. Now I have permanent resident status in Canada. Actually, before I began this tour I applied for Canadian nationality. Not for political reasons, but since the World Trade Center we're all living in fear. Before the Canadian Permanent Residents card was sort of forever, but now they can take it away anytime they want, and I have to report to them every five years all my work and travel activities.

When did you move up to Vermont?

We bought the land in 1964, when I was 28. At first we had a small tent and then by the end of the 60s we built a small shack. Back to the earth, the whole hippy thing. I was playing with orchestras in New York City, I had to work about five jobs simultaneously just to be able to carry on doing my music for nothing. I was married, my son was born, and I was working for a while in Puerto Rico. When I came back I was offered a college job, and my then wife said let's move to Vermont full time. I said, wait, I could be a college professor, with job security and tenure.. but you don't argue. (laughs) So we moved there in about 71, after we'd built a regular house, a log house. We stayed there about four or five years. It has no electricity, but it's my paradise.

How do you go about cooking food, without electricity?

Cut firewood. Even now. I go there in the summer, I cut my firewood and every meal I make my small pieces of firewood and I cook my food.

It must be cold in winter.

I don't go there in winter now. You need two adults, if not all the water freezes. Yes, it was cold, but we built a good house, and I cut a lot of firewood. Physically it took a lot of energy. At the time I was working down at Dartmouth, which was an hour's drive away. That was the crazy thing – I needed a car. The nearest place to buy food was eight miles away. And I needed the car to get to Dartmouth. There was no public transport.

The experience of living out in the woods put you in touch with things many of us have forgotten, I imagine.

Oh, I think I can say that our value system is way off. We're so fortunate, but we're so wasteful. The environment is only going to give us so much. We're too much of a consumer society, we don't think about the waste we make. I have a lot of strange habits and they all come out of living in Vermont. When I shave I take a little bowl of hot water. I don't keep lots of water running. You don't just dump waste on the street – can I use this for something else, start the fire with it or something. When I go shopping why do I need a plastic bag every time? I take my own bag. All this came out of living in the environment.

Living without electricity also means living without recordings of music, of course.

Yes, but even today I only have a certain number of CDs. Some I listen to again, but many I listen to and pass on. I don't listen much, I'm too busy playing. Living in the woods opened up my life, opened up my ears to all kinds of nuances of sound, the wind in the trees, textures. I try to capture that in The Seasons: Vermont. It's like the Judson Dance Theater experience again: these are our lives, and we're living in the world of sound and light and smell. It's not high art, it's more the experience of who you are totally, rather than thinking about some idea of perfect. I'm not interested in perfect. It must be very boring. I just want my life to be continually open, so that in death I'll just disappear. Leave no footsteps behind, no memorial. Just like a cloud, passing.

See interviews of related interest with Frank Denyer, Ben Johnston and Radu Malfatti. Thanks to Théo Jarrier, the staff at Les Instants Chavirés, Montreuil, where the interview was recorded, and Pete Gershon (Signal To Noise).