photograph by Brian Ashley
Interview by Clifford Allen August 2010
Saxophonist and flutist Dickie Landry's story is about as far-flung as one can imagine, moving from white R&B in the American South to improvised and contemporary minimal / process music in New York during the 1970s, all the while hanging around with the primary figures in New York's post-minimal and concept art scene. Though less visible from the 1980s onward, Landry has recently returned to his Louisiana homeland and splits his time between playing in a popular swamp-pop band and reinvestigating what made his playing so desirable to people like Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. As part of writing the liner notes to the 2011 reissue of his Fifteen Saxophones LP (Unseen Worlds), Clifford Allen had the opportunity to speak at length with Landry at the artist's home in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Let's start from the beginning since your history might be unfamiliar to a lot of people.
I was born the in small village of Cecilia, Louisiana on November 16, 1938 (or according to my mother, it could have been the 15th) in a little shack across the street from the high school. My parents sold sodas, candy and sandwiches to the kids. We moved to a 60-acre farm that they bought when I was two. I grew up on the farm and still maintain it today. My father was a foreman in sugar refineries in Central America and South America so he was hardly ever home. I was 12 when he moved back for good and started up a dairy. If you don't know what a dairy farm encompasses, it requires milking many cows in the morning and many in the afternoon, 365 days a year, rain or shine, electricity or no electricity. I remember one day as I was shoveling cow shit, I was looking out the window of the dairy barn and I thought to myself "there has got to be something better than this."
I've been involved with music since the age of six. My mother brought me to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cecilia, hoping I'd be the next priest, Cardinal and or Pope, and what I didn't want to be was an altar boy. Fortunately, the gods were smiling on me, the choir was practicing and I decided I wanted to sing. My mother said "if this makes you happy, go ahead and do it" (a side-note to that is: whenever I came back from a tour, my mother looked at me and asked if I'm happy – I would always answer yes, "so don't change" she said). I sang the Requiem Mass five days a week and the High Mass on the weekends every day for eight years.
Around this time, a movie theater had opened in Cecilia and the projectionist was a friend of mine who taught me how to run the projectors. So here I was singing 16th Century Gregorian chant music in the morning, going to school, working the farm, and projecting movies at night, quite a busy time. Movies in those days were two or three reels max; when Gone with the Wind was released it had 12 reels and I ran that movie for weeks on end. Many of the cowboy actors came to Cecilia and surrounding towns to hawk their movies so I got to meet a lot of them – Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, Hopalong Cassidy, Bob Steele, Lash LaRue, Rocky Lane and many, many more.
How did you get interested in playing woodwinds?
My brother John is eight years older than I am and he played the saxophone. In order to avoid being sent to Korea he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Waco, Texas with the Air Force Jazz Band for four years. I started receiving recordings of West Coast jazz artists from him which was my first introduction to contemporary jazz. Before he left for the service he gave me his saxophone. I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade so I joined the beginning band. While in High School I was also active in four-part harmony mixed vocal quartets. I did my first professional job playing in a society band at the age of 13. Barely capable of reading music, the leader, Harry Greig, counted off the song and I believe that I played the first note and the last note, and on the next song I played maybe the last two bars. In my senior year in high school, I bought a used flute for $25. I have a photograph of me playing it at a rehearsal for my graduation. A couple of years later at Louisiana State University, the orchestra was short of flute players so I was asked to play the second flute part of [Puccini's opera] Tosca, and that's when I really fell in love with that instrument and also Puccini.
But there were no flute or saxophone teachers around, so my brother suggested that I attend a summer music camp at Lafayette High School so I could learn to play the clarinet. I would be dropped off in the mornings and would hitch hike back home in the afternoon after the sessions were over. John Gilfrey, the son of circus musicians, taught the band classes. Mr. Gilfrey could play every instrument and knew all the tricks. He taught me all the fingerings for the clarinet. Mr. Gilfrey eventually moved on as the band director at the university and told me that when I got there he would put me in the first chair position in the band.
I'd frequently go the library and read books about composers, noticing where the books were printed – New York, London or Paris. New York was conceivable, but going across the ocean was far-fetched. I graduated from high school in 1956, and my brother was already on to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. I befriended a jazz drummer by the name of Rene Arceneaux whose family had struck it rich in oil. He said "Let's go to New York and visit your brother," so that summer we drove to the city in his red and white 1956 Corvette. You have to understand, in those days there were no interstates. The Corvette gurgled into these little towns in Tennessee and Kentucky or wherever. Having to drive around the town squares, we noticed that the girls were on one side of the park and boys on the other with parents watching them and us as we drove through. I commented once to Rene, "don't stop, just keep driving." We drove straight to Birdland, parked the car about three parking meters down from the front door and walked in. That night Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones were playing. I was in heaven! We ended up staying for three weeks in the city. I went to Birdland every night and heard some of the best jazz musicians of that time.
When I graduated from the university, I asked the head of the music department about getting lessons in New York. He gave me an address and said, "write to this person – he might take you on" and "do you have a flute?" I had no flute. Fortunately a student who had just graduated had ordered a flute four years earlier and only recently received it and wanted to sell it for $300. I borrowed the money from my mother and walked off with a great handmade sterling silver open hole, low B key extension Haynes Flute.
You studied with Arthur Lora, right?
I wrote to Arthur Lora and received a response that I should come to New York City. I took the Greyhound bus, a 28-hour ride. This was 1963 and since I had been to New York every summer since 1956, I knew the city and decided that I was going to stay in a real house in Yonkers. Upon arriving for my scheduled lesson 15 minutes early I was about to ring the door bell when I heard flute sounds coming from the apartment. At the scheduled time, I rang the bell. The door opens and here is this short, very elegant Italian man. He asked how long I had been there and I said oh, about 15 minutes.' He asked, "why didn't you ring the bell?" and I told him that I'd heard someone practicing. He said "I don't practice – I was warming up as I didn't know who was coming and you might play better than I do." The first question he asks is "why do you want to play the flute? Do you want to perform classical or orchestral music, go to Juilliard or be a concert flutist?" I said "none of the above – I just want to learn how to play the instrument." I was accepted.
He then asked me to play for him. Instantly he recognized that I was a clarinet player. He said "I'll take you, but we have to go back to the beginning and take one note at a time." Here I am in New York for six weeks paying $80 for one hour lessons. In those days that was a lot of money and the outcome of only six notes? That's not gonna cut it. I decided then that I was going to do more. Then I asked him to play for me. "Why?" he asked. I said, "I want to hear what the flute is supposed to sound like so I can imitate the sound." The big house in Yonkers had of lot of privacy so I began to practice 16-17 hours daily till the next lesson. I was determined to do better than six notes and Mr. Lora was impressed.
By the end of the third lesson he says "you have no idea of who I am, do you?" Of course, I said I didn't, and he responded "well, do you know who Arturo Toscanini is?" I said I did, and that he is the greatest orchestral conductor in the world. Mr. Lora said, "I've been his principal flute player for the past fifteen years." Of course, my jaw just dropped and I said, "who did you study with?" and his response was "Barrère." Barrère was the legendary flute teacher in the early 1900s who studied with Boehm and perfected the modern day flute. The weird connection with this story is that the house I was staying at in Yonkers used to belong to Toscanini. Also, the lessons with Arthur meant practicing many exercises, which is one reason why [Philip] Glass's music came easily for me.
When did you actually make the final move to New York?
After taking the lessons with Mr. Lora I decided that it was time to move and that January 1964 was the date. However, back in Louisiana I was growing a lot of marijuana and I got busted big time in November 1963. If convicted I was looking at a mandatory 25-year sentence. 10 years prior to this, it was the death penalty. A friend, Lois Hesterly, brought a lawyer to the jail. He said "I'm going to ask you one question and if you answer it right, I'll take the case. Where did you get the seeds?" I said "I have no idea." He said, "I'll take the case." The statute in the law books read that if you are growing it the seed has to be a Mexican derivative in order to be illegal. In other words I either had to walk, fly, or drive cross the border into Mexico, get the seed and come back to America and put it in the ground. My lawyer said "since you have no idea where the seeds came from, the state has no case."
Minos Simon was one of the best criminal lawyers at that time in Louisiana. One day I was freaking out about going to prison for 25 years so I called him and he said, "get down to my office now." He said "I'm a criminal lawyer – I don't care if you stabbed your mother 98 times, cut her up and served as food with good wine to your friends, you're not guilty until the Supreme Court finds you guilty." At one point he wanted me to smoke a joint on the stand to show that I would not kill and pillage. In his office he hung wall a 4x8 foot piece of plywood painted grey. Painted in black letters was the statute as it was written. He invited several lawyers and judges to his office and they were asked to interpret the writing. Each had a different opinion (I assume that maybe this was my first brush with conceptual art?). Anyway, he worked it to where I got a five year probation sentence, which meant I had to stay in Louisiana for five years. In hindsight, it was actually the best thing to happen, otherwise my life would be some other kind of story.
Conditions of the probation: no contact with musicians, a 10-o'clock curfew, no drugs or alcohol of any kind and no trips out of state. Three weeks later I was playing acoustic bass with a jazz trio at the Playboy Club in New Orleans, performing in night clubs with the Swing Kings, a 10-piece blue-eyed soul cover band, and traveling out of state. I had a blast playing four nights a week with them. We would open for the bands on the chitlin circuit, like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and many other rhythm and blues acts of the day. I knew when the probation officer would be coming for the monthly visit so I would go to the farm, put my gloves on and pretend I was working. Four and a half years into the probation, he realized what was going on and he said, "Mr. Landry, I realize what you've been doing. You've been lying to me for three years. But I like you and as far as I'm concerned you didn't do anything wrong. So here's your release." A few months later I rented a moving truck, backed it up to my apartment, loaded everything including a can full of garbage, and drove straight to New York City in January of 1969.
Let's go back and discuss the music that inspired you, and what you listened to.
Like I said, my brother was the catalyst. Jazz records would arrive monthly. I was listening mostly to West Coast Jazz – Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan and so forth. When I was a junior in high school the band director, Louis Major, took me to a concert of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in New Orleans. The line up consisted of Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, June Christy, Candido, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Frank Rosolino, Stan Levy and some others. The newspaper ad read "Special added attraction, Charlie Parker" I asked the director who that was and he said "just you wait." At one point during the concert the lights dimmed and Parker comes out on stage playing a very slow song. I actually saw him live. Soon my jazz taste changed – Ornette Coleman, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Eddie Blackwell and so forth.
What about the musical climate in Lafayette?
The university taught mostly classical music. If you were caught playing jazz on the piano in the practice rooms you were kicked out. Most of the students were Korean veterans on the G.I. Bill. I met several jazz musicians: Lloyd Hebert, Bud Brashier, Rusty Gilder and Robert Prado, and an older drummer named Alton Bernard. At 16 I started to hang and jam with them all night, sometimes lasting 72 hours and driven by amphetamines and alcohol.
I didn't get to Clifton Chenier's music and Zydeco music until 1972. Russell Dupuis took me to a black club in the swamp called the Dipsy Doodle. It was dimly lit and all black, and I was scared to go in. Once I entered and heard the music, all the anxiety was gone. I recognized John Hart, his saxophone player, and immediately asked him if I could sit in, and then he asked Clifton. Clifton responded by saying "we've got a white boy from Cecilia who wants to try to play some Zydeco." I got up and played a couple of songs. I was getting ready to walk off, but Clifton said I could stay. A couple of hours later my lips were giving out so I asked John, "when do you break?" "We don't," he said. Clifton's attitude was that, if he would break everyone would leave, so it was a 4-5 hour nonstop gig. If one would leave the bandstand to go to the bathroom or whatever, you'd have to keep on going and go home.
Was there any indication of a certain type of music that you wanted to play or get to when you were going to New York?
Around this time I was having a debate in my head – I am about to get out of school and so what is it that I want to be? At first I thought it would play classical music or big band music from listening to the jazz records my brother had sent. I was picking cotton and listening to Cajun music back in Louisiana, but that's not what I wanted to do. I just wanted to get away from that scene, and would do whatever it took to make it happen somewhere else. There was another world out there besides farming and milking cows.
I became interested in art in high school. I was looking at a Time Magazine article about Robert Rauschenberg, an American artist who later won the Venice Biennale prize, and who was the first American to do so. I figured that if this man can do what he did and get this sort of attention, then I'm free to do whatever I want. The image cut all ties to classical and the jazz world. Bob had painted his bed and hung it on the wall. This was a major breakthrough for me. I was free, free to do what ever the fuck I wanted to do. I wasn't going to play saxophone like anybody else, I wasn't going to play Cajun music or Swamp Pop and I wasn't going to be classical anything. I really liked new, cutting-edge music.
In my freshman year I was introduced to the avant-garde in Europe – Stravinsky, Bartok, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono and so forth. So every two or three months I'd order sheet music from New York or Europe. I would assemble the best musicians and teachers to perform these compositions, and of course we butchered the music. When I did finally get to meet Philip Glass and listen to what he did, I thought it was the newest music I had ever heard.
But it was totally anathema, structurally and aesthetically, to what the Darmstadt school had been doing.
There was no European influence in Philip's early minimal music. The style of writing he came up with comes from Indian music. In Indian music you basically have your rhythm and melody, there are no chord structures. The rhythm is basically counts off: 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3 and so on. While he was in Paris, Philip studied with Ravi Shankar's tabla player. In the first rehearsal I had with Philip, he showed me a piece of paper but it had only numbers written down. I looked at it and asked him, "so, what notes do you want me to play?" He said, "what do you mean?" I said "what key am I in? The numbers do not tell me what note you want me to play." He said, "you mean I have to write all those notes out?" I said "well, you're a composer aren't you?" So this is where his minimal style of music came from. His music of today sounds a bit more European because he deals with lots of melody and chord structures. If you go listen to his music from that time and now, they're not the same. Phil was no minimalist, it was just this gigantic thrust of sound – maximal music!
I never did like the term minimalism and neither did Philip. I think Michael Nyman coined the phrase. Philip and I both played for a year with Steve Reich. Performing with Steve was like being around a teacher who, if you made a mistake, would rap on your knuckles with a ruler. [Multi-instrumentalist] Robert Prado was in that group also and during a rehearsal break, Prado opened a beer and Reich fired him on the spot. Steve played in Philip's ensemble and Philip and I played in Steve's ensemble. One day in the middle of a rehearsal with Philip, Steve jumps up, slams the cover down on the piano and declared he'd be "doing his own music" and left. The battle was on between Philip and Steve – who's on first? Philip was a very nice guy, comparatively.
When you came to New York in 1969, what was it like?
I drove my then-girlfriend, who'd just graduated from the university, straight to Manhattan. Upon arrival in the city, I stopped at Smith's Bar & Grill at 2nd Ave. and 13th St., to have something to eat and make a phone call, when we got back to the car everything was gone. Welcome to New York. Saxophone, clothes, everything – stolen. I found a hotel, the Broadway Central. We had to run and jump into the bed to avoid the roaches. This hotel eventually collapsed years later. The new music venue, The Kitchen, was later in the basement of this hotel. The Village Gate was around the corner and I saw that Ornette Coleman was performing that evening. We walked in and there was Ornette, so I immediately started talking to him. After a while he said, "your accent, where you from?" I told him Lafayette. He said, "oh, I got beat up in that town once" and I told him my story of getting robbed. He didn't hesitate to give me his number and told me to call him if I needed a saxophone or anything else while in the city. We've been friends ever since.
How did you and Philip Glass actually meet?
Around the same time, Keith Sonnier, a visual artist whom I'd known from Louisiana, told me that he'd attended a concert of a composer by the name of Philip Glass that visually was interesting. Philip had built this labyrinth of walls with the sheet music attached. Paul Zukofsky played the violin and walked the labyrinth following the score. Keith suggested I should meet Philip and gave me his number. I called and was invited over. After some chatting he started looking for something to show me. I realized he was looking for scores or tapes of his music. He soon gave up. Years later, I realized he hadn't come up with his style and didn't want to show me anything that resembled his classical training. I did see a couple of scores, which didn't interest me at all. He mentioned that he had to make tea for a blind friend who was living on the top floor of his apartment and "you might know this person." When he mentioned that it was Moondog, my thoughts were, "if he has Moondog living here, I have to pay attention to this guy." I first heard Moondog on the radio back when I was eight or nine. My father listened to all the heavyweight fights live from Madison Square Garden and since he was partly deaf, he had the volume blaring. After the fights, I heard this music that I liked, I then would sneak the radio into my room and listen to "Live from the Street of NYC… Moondog!" Yes, Moondog was a hero of mine.
Philip invited me to a dinner at Steve Reich's loft the following weekend. He said "bring your saxophone." Steve played and I liked it, then I played and they thought it was cool, and then Phil played what he said would be a "short piece." It lasted about 45 minutes. During his performance I went through every emotion in the book, and when he finished I jumped up and said "my god, this is the best new music I've have ever heard." Philip mentioned that he was going to start an ensemble and asked if I was interested. I said yes, it was a job. Little did I realize that he had only one concert lined up in 1969, which was at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As soon as I arrived in the city we had rehearsals. The first ensemble musicians were Frederic Rzewski, David Behrman, Jon Gibson, Philip and a couple of others. We were rehearing Music with Changing Parts. I could read fly shit on paper, but this was difficult because of the repetition and everyone playing he same rhythm, we kept making mistakes. For me it was torture. I realized later that most of the performers were composers and not instrumentalists.
Phil realized that I needed a real job, so he mentioned he had a friend, Robert Fiore, a filmmaker who moved furniture. The next day I showed up at this five-storey walk-up. Phil takes a length of cotton rope, wraps it around this refrigerator, and walks it down five flights of stairs on his back. I said "okay – I've dug potatoes, milked cows, picked cotton, washed dishes, cut sugar cane, but I refuse to move furniture." Phil said "what else can you do?" I told him I could plumb, but, since I'd just arrived in the city, I couldn't get the plumbing license. The deal was that he would get the license and as his assistant, I would teach him how to plumb. Our first job was to plumb my loft in Chinatown. So I was busy treading the galvanized pipe and he was doing the fitting. Came time to turn the water on and there were leaks at every joint. I said, "what the hell" and he said, "as my assistant you are supposed to tighten the joints." We did plumbing for a year and a half. During this period I met Joan Jonas, a performance artist who invited me to her first performance. I borrowed a camera and took pictures of the performance. The next day Joan called me and said, "I saw you there last night with a camera, do you want to sell the photos?" The light bulb went off! Of course I did – plumbing or photography , figure it out. This is how I began my photographic journey. For the next ten years, I photographed all my friends in the art/dance/theatre and music world of SoHo at that time.
Had you dabbled in photography before?
I knew my way around a camera because of working with 35 mm film in the movie theatre. My uncle had cameras and I would play with them to see how they worked. Shooting and printing Joan Jonas performance prints was my first dabble in photography.
When did you start making paintings?
I took lessons in the art department back at the university. There was a professor by the name of Calvin Harlan who was very into American modern music, so we related on that level. I took art classes with him, and my first pieces looked sort of like Joan Miró. It wasn't until I got to New York that I began to think about making more serious work. Do you recall the look of old television screens, and how they were not rectangular but rounded on the top and bottom of the screen? I did drawings based on that image by just squaring off the bottom and the top. In 1994 I was drawing these images using this six-sided format, and I asked a friend how he thought the drawings would translate into paintings. He said "there's the canvas and here's some gesso – you know what to do." My first painting was an amazing turn-on and I realized that I could actually see something physical in front of me that wasn't a photograph.
I always wanted to place big images on the canvas but to do so I would have had to do silkscreen, which I thought was too derivative, and the chemical process was a little daunting. A couple of years ago a friend, Rocky Perkins, bought a painting machine which is used to paint billboards. I emailed him a photo attachment and told him to put it anywhere on the canvas and I would work around it You have to understand for years I wanted images on my canvas – now I am able to do this and have any size image I want.
Roger Odgen, from the art museum in New Orleans, came to Lafayette to lecture at a local gallery. He'd already bought two of my paintings, and came to my apartment so I could show him more of my work. He asked me what they meant and I described them as three dimensions on a flat plane, derived from working with video. He stood back and said, "oh, I get it." He proceeded to give the lecture that evening and ended up focusing on me rather than his initial subject saying, "you people don't realize that you have a Renaissance Man in your midst." I got some curious looks from people around town.
How did you meet [art dealer and gallery owner] Leo Castelli?
I met Leo while working with his artists, Keith Sonnier, Lawrence Weiner and Richard Serra. I was at he gallery several times a week so over a period of a few months I met a number of the major contemporary artists who frequented the Gallery at 420 West Broadway. Warhol, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Susan Rothenberg, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mary Heilman and others.
I was new in New York and I went in feet first – luckily I wasn't in jail, so I did whatever it took to make it work. I'd help Gordon Matta-Clark cut buildings, took photographs, did plumbing, construction, whatever I had to do in order not to go back to Louisiana. I was working with some these artists shooting photos of their works and doing physical labor building their pieces. Philip, Chuck Close, Spalding Grey and myself helped Richard Serra assemble his first show at the Castelli warehouse uptown – his lead prop series. This work was incredibly dangerous. You have to understand that each lead plate was four feet square, three quarters of an inch thick and weighed 400 pounds. If you went forward or backward six inches, you had to let them go otherwise you would be crushed from them falling under their own weight. We were dealing with a total of 1400 pounds. We'd say, on the count of three back away, so when we would get to the to that count and it stood on its own we would back up and walk away. Richard would ask us at the end of the day to think of a piece that would we could build the next day. Chuck came up with the Close Pin Prop (1969), I came up with 2-2-1 (To Dickie and Tina) (1969) and Phil came up with some others.
Because Castelli was so successful, he gave stipends to his young artists, which was unprecedented at the time. A lot of art was being made and sold by both the young and established artists. After the Second World War, there was no art world in Europe, so New York was it. All the museum dealers and collectors came to New York to replenish their collections.
I assume knowing Leo Castelli was a big help for you.
Leo gave me my first concert in NYC in 1972. One evening I was editing video at the gallery. There was a Jasper Johns show in the front room. I saw Leo walking around the gallery really looking at the paintings, and my curiosity got to me so I asked him, "Leo, what are you doing?" He said, "I put this show together, and these paintings will never be in the same room ever again. I want to enjoy the show before it comes down." He looked at me and said, "you like art and you like painting. I'm going to turn you into a painter." I said "Leo, I don't have time right now." He told me to think about it. This was 1977. I didn't start painting until 1994. On a later trip to NYC I met Leo and told him I was painting. He said, "don't show them to anybody – I want to be the first see them." But unfortunately he died a couple of months later.
Video was becoming an art form so Leo bought the first Sony portable tape deck and camera for his artists to use. Through working with Keith Sonnier on his videos I made tapes of my own. The tapes and subsequent photographs were shown at the Castelli galleries uptown and downtown. Artists were infuriated with me – "How did you get a show at Castelli?" My reply was "He asked me." I was told I should do only one thing and my reply was, "I get bored just doing one thing."
It's interesting because few people traverse both worlds – art and music – so fluidly.
I think it just came naturally to me. I was interested in art, and little did I realize that when I moved to New York, that in a matter of weeks I'd be working with Keith Sonnier and Richard Serra who were in the Castelli Gallery. In the contemporary art world, you can't get any higher than that. In the music world, I was working with William Fischer, a composer/arranger and band director from Opelousas, Louisiana who worked at Atlantic Records. In 1969 I was at the top of both worlds, and I was naïve enough not to realize that this was normally an impossible thing. I worked at Atlantic for nine months as a studio musician until one day they asked me to sound like King Curtis, and I told them to shove it. I went downtown and didn't go back above Houston Street for a year.
It seems like there's a strong Louisiana connection to all of this – Rauschenberg (originally from Port Arthur, TX but raised near Lafayette), Fischer, Sonnier and so forth.
It gets better. Philip's playing skills weren't up to par, nor were the other players in the ensemble, except Jon Gibson. My friends in Louisiana decided that they should look into moving to NYC. The first one to come to NYC was Robert Prado. I introduced him to Philip at a rehearsal and he was immediately hired. Then I brought saxophonist Richard Peck (who recently retired from the ensemble after 30 years) up in 72, followed by Rusty Gilder, Jon Smith and Steve Chambers. Out of six musicians in the ensemble four of us were from Louisiana. I know we had a huge impact on that early music but Philip completely ignores this in his writings on the early ensemble.
The early ensemble had a special kind of energy to it.
It was fluid, whereas his music now is pretty rigid and lifeless, and to me it's boring. We would make mistakes but the music kept going on, so maybe elastic is a better term.
The live experience of the Philip Glass Ensemble must have been something quite different.
Phil's music requires a lot of attention, concentration and physical endurance. I always felt like I was going to a workout or running a marathon. You have to understand that some of the concerts were up to six hours long, so I had to meditate before each concert to get ready for what was coming. I never complained as I really enjoyed playing his music.
Coming from improvised music and jazz background, as well as your own history, how did repetition strike you and how you would deal with that?
I love repetition. When you listen to James Brown, that's repetition. Zydeco is repetition, and so is the blues. They've got the same chords over and over and over but not as intense as Glass. Here I am playing music that I really enjoyed, had a bunch of my friends with me, traveling the world and getting paid. This was not how I expected it would be in New York. I wanted to get to Europe eventually, though I didn't think it would be through Phil's music. But when our music was accepted by the art world, we toured Europe several times a year performing mostly in art galleries and museums. I would book my concerts either before or after his tour. I'll never forget one of our first European concerts was in Duren, Germany. Phil gave a performance and a lecture, where he vowed he would never record his music. Yeah, right! From the very beginning, we only worked in galleries or museums. The music world didn't want anything to do with us. There's a side note about one concert the ensemble did in Lafayette, Louisiana, at my alma mater. The art department invited us to perform. Do you know how many music teachers showed up? Just one, George Brown, my musicology teacher that I mentioned earlier. I was very disappointed to say the least.
At the time, Phil couldn't find any institutions that wanted to perform his music – the academic music world didn't like that he was getting all this attention. This general lack of appreciation for the music continued until he composed the music for Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach. This four-hour opera placed him on the map in the music world. A few months later the ensemble performed a concert at Yale University. Ned Rorem asked Phil, "how does it feel to be one of America's greatest composers?" Phil had no idea what he was talking about until he realized that it was him that he was referring to.
Had you done any composing at that point?
I wasn't trained as a composer – I'm an instrumentalist. When I want to do something, I go into a studio and compose through overlaying. I seriously never thought about writing music down on paper.
I'd like to talk a bit about your recordings. Could you talk about the Solos ensemble, which performed at Castelli [Richard Landry, Solos, Chatham Square, 1973]?
It was the byproduct of the musicians who were jamming and living with me at 10 Chatham Square. We jammed free from 10pm until 6am. When Leo Castelli offered me a concert, I went back to the loft and told the guys, "we got a concert." "What are we going to do?" I said, "well, we'll do what we always do – we're just gonna start playing." That's the way I liked to work, just turn the tape on. I am really not a "jazz" musician, though I do know how to improvise freely. The problem with this is that it might work and then it might not. Kurt Munkacsi was working for John Lennon at the time so he borrowed Lennon's 16-track mobile studio, backed it up to the gallery and recorded our five hour concert that was later released on the Solos vinyl set.
Tell us about Chatham Square.
Chatham Square, number 10, is where I lived for six years. It's a square in Chinatown right at the end of the Bowery. Two floors of a run-down, old tinderbox wooden building. I cooked a lot so I had lots of friends at "Chez Landry's." It was the meeting place for artist and musicians. Kurt Munkacsi, Peck, Prado, and Philip all lived there at some point. It was also our rehearsal studio. Philip and I started a record label named after it, and we released several records. There was Philip's Music in Fifths/Music in Similar Motion and Music with Changing Parts, Jon Gibson's Visitations and Two Solo Pieces, Michael Snow's Music for Piano, Whistling and Tape Recorder and my Solos and 4 Cuts Placed In a First Quarter.
I was recently reading about the Park Place Gallery and their free jazz band in the mid-60s. Mark di Suvero was part of that crowd, as were Tony Magar and Peter Forakis. It made me wonder whether that was kind of the environment you were working in.
In a way, but none of the musicians in the Solos band did art that I know of.
What about the material released on the 4 Cuts Placed in A First Quarter LP [Chatham Square, 1972]? Was that from the same setting?
Same musicians, different occasion. I had met and worked with Lawrence Weiner, the conceptual artist. Lawrence wanted some of my music for a film of his. I told him that I already had the music. I followed the cameraman around and pressed play on the tape machine when Lawrence asked for music. I enjoyed working with Lawrence. I shot several videos for him and we also did an album called Having Been Built on Sand, where I play several woodwind instruments with words recited by him and some of our friends. It was released on vinyl by the Rudiger Schottle Gallery in Munich.
How did you get involved with overdubs and delays as a solo instrumentalist?
Robert Prado, my best friend, died in 1974 in a tragic accident. At one of Philip's concerts at 10 Bleecker Street I did a memorial solo performance for Robert. Kurt Munkacsi had done a stereo delay for the Four Cuts LP, and I asked how many delays could I have, and he said that we could have as many delays as we had tape recorders. I suggested that we use four delays. I'd never rehearsed or played with this set-up. It was awesome – a quartet of saxophones. I fell into it immediately, a complete turn on, and I wanted to keep doing it. It was then that I realized that I really never wanted to form a real working group of my own. I was writing it as it was happening, stream-of-consciousness improvisation.
I guess that's where my approach to your solo music as compositional comes from – instrumental relationships that are very self-contained. Could you talk about the solo music on Fifteen Saxophones [Northern Lights/Wergo, 1977]?
Until recently, I hadn't thought about the Fifteen Saxophones record – probably not since it came out. When I performed solo, it was not about composition but about the instrument, its sound and its capabilities, I wanted to see how far I could take Adolphe Sax's invention, the saxophone. There is a series of videos, Quad Suite, that I did at the Kitchen, produced by Carlotta Schulman. In the tenor saxophone solo, "4th Register," there was a reflection of light on the bell of the saxophone, the result being that when the saxophone moved, it etched the pinpoint of light into the lens. It's burnt in as I'm playing – very materialist. There's also one where I play the bamboo flute, "Hebe's Grande Bois," concentrating on the lips and breath, and another where I'm playing the guitar, "Six Vibrations for Agnes Martin," concentrating on the movement of the strings. I'm focusing on the source of the sound.
Do you remember anything in particular about the Kitchen performance or anything related to that?
Well, like I said, "Fifteen Saxophones" came out of the idea that Kurt Munkacsi would record the live tenor saxophone sound and delay the original four times. Then through overdubbing we'd repeat the process two more times, thus five times three is fifteen. When I performed the quad pieces for live performance, I would run the sound through two Revox tape machines at 33 1/3 speed. Before we went digital I used to have to carry those tape decks around but now it is controlled through the soundboard. That's about all I remember; the quad flute piece "Alto Flute Quad Delay" was just that – a quad delay – and as for the "Kitchen Solos," it's hard to remember the specifics because it was one out of a number of different concerts. The original record was put it out through Northern Lights Records, which was run by two guys who paid me a little money to release the vinyl. They went to the Cannes Film Festival that year, hawking a bunch of rock music. I got a call from them that the only music they sold for licensing was Fifteen Saxophones, to Wergo Records in Germany.
The studio at 112 Greene Street where I recorded Fifteen Saxophones was owned by Jeffery Lew. He opened a gallery space on the first floor which was available to any artist to do whatever he or she wanted to do, 24 hours a day. Vito Acconci did a performance there where he jacked off under a floor contraption he had made. Gordon Matta-Clark cut a hole in the floor in the basement and planted a tree. Chris Burden shot himself in the arm and all of that. Susan Rothenberg had her first show in the Gallery and I had many group and solo concerts there.
Could you describe a little more of the mechanics of the delay?
I use four speakers and put one in each corner of the room. The live sound of the saxophone is run through the mixing board and a special effect module. The first sound is live in all four speakers, then I send the original sound 400-millisecond delay to the first speaker, an 800 millisecond delay to the second, a 1200 millisecond delay to the third, and a 1600 millisecond delay to the fourth, creating a quartet of saxophones and a vortex of sound. People asked why I didn't use different increments. These increments felt good and it worked as a natural rhythm. I could introduce chords and or multiple rhythms. I thought about doing live fifteen or the twelve saxophones compositions with other saxophone players but I never have found another saxophonist who could play using this quad system with out really fucking it all up. The only written piece for the quad setup is a piece called Trialogue which was written and performed for a solo dance by Deborah Hay.
You've worked with dancers a fair amount.
Yeah – I've also worked with Lucinda Childs, Nancy Lewis, Barbara Dilly, Jane Comfort and Trisha Brown. I collaborated with Trisha on a Robert Rauschenberg piece, which was a total disaster. Trisha wanted a set from Bob that could be used without electricity, with light and sound modules run by car batteries. There were sensors on the modules so when a dancer went by the lights or sound would be triggered off and on by the movement. The problem was that the lights or tape would come on, wouldn't shut off, wouldn't come at all, or just stay on. In other words, the idea wasn't working. A few years later, Trisha decided she wanted to change the sound and music. She asked John Cage what he thought, and his response was "just turn all the sound off!" At first I was pissed, but his idea was a great solution.
How did you meet Rauschenberg?
In 1969, my (now) ex-wife was working with the Deborah Hay Dance Company. Deborah wanted to watch a 16mm film and Bob had the 16mm projector. She invited people over to my very small apartment on Horatio Street. The first person at the door was Rauschenberg. Before he stepped through the door, I told him the story of how I knew of his work. A few weeks later, Keith Sonnier wanted to do a 16 mm film. I suggested that Rauschenberg had a 16 mm camera, so why don't you call him. He said, "I can't call him" and I said, "but he's in your gallery, why can't you talk to him?" I decided to call Bob and was invited to his place at 381 Lafayette Street. I arrived at about 6pm and left at 6am the next morning, drunker than a skunk, with his camera in my arm. As I walking out I heard, "I really don't know who you are and you're borrowing my $12,000 camera, but since you're from Lafayette you must be okay."
I was invited by Bob to perform for the openings of his would tour, Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI). His intention was to bring contemporary American art to people in various countries. He rented a 747 jet filled it with his art. Prior to the openings he would travel to these countries and work with artisans that helped create his work. Once the show was over he donated a work to the local museum in whatever country he was in.
There's an analogy between what you were doing with the saxophone and what Richard Serra was doing with lead.
Exactly. The melting of lead and throwing it against the wall – it is free and avant-garde. Chris Burden shooting himself, Vito Acconci jacking off under a floor – either nuts or genius. Richard Serra found a steel yard that used to bend steel for battleships to form his pieces. As beautiful as those pieces are, they are fuckin' scary. They look light as a feather, but they'll crush you to death in a second.
Richard Serra is one of the best sculptors in the world, and I'm honored to know and have worked with him. If you don't talk art with him he'll dismiss you in a second. Talking to him is a discourse on the history of art, why this person did something, why another artist's art doesn't work – he knows his history. That's what I liked about artists; they could talk to one another on terms that are historical, comparing 13th Century Italian painters to 20th Century painters and so forth. Unlike musicians, who'd be like, "I can play better than you – let's fight it out on the bandstand." Artists do that too, sometimes – Robert Smithson peeing on Carl André and drunken fights at Max's Kansas City over who invented whatever – but most artists I know are very generous. Rauschenberg set up a foundation for artists in need of help called Change. I was recipient of several grants when my loft was destroyed in a fire in 1978. And Sol Lewitt gave me the money to buy the bass clarinet that I eventually used in Einstein on the Beach.
And you composed a Mass in the 80s, right?
Mass for Pentecost Sunday was commissioned by Dominique de Menil and completed in 1986. I met her during the rehearsals for Einstein on the Beach. Dominique and her husband John had decided to build a museum in Houston for their extensive collection. I knew her curator Walter Hopps and by chance we met at the airport in Houston and he told me that she was accepting commissions for compositions for the celebration of the opening of the museum. I said I would let Philip and Steve Reich know and Walter said, "you think about it." I thought about what I should do and came up with the idea of a Mass. She invited me to meet in Houston to overlook the selection of music for the week of celebration. There was a fanfare from Pierre Boulez, the Mercer Ellington band for the big dance, blues, and string quartets. During one of the final meetings, Dominique asked me what I was interested in doing. I said that I could do a solo concert but what I really wanted to do was a Mass. She exclaimed "in French?" and I said "no, in Latin." She jumped up, clicked her heels, and said "you got it – how much?"
I made phone calls to several people in New York to get an idea of the cost of such a commission. I phoned her with the price and received half the commission and the other half when I finished. It took some time to set in: I'm an instrumentalist rather than a composer and I had to write something that a chorus could read. This was my first true composition, getting notes down on paper. Friends suggested that I look at the Macintosh computer which had just come out. I bought one and I found notational and sequencing software, and by using those tools I finished the Mass in nine months. I had to learn all the equipment from scratch, which I did without opening the users' manual.
I was having trouble putting the Mass in order so I paid a visit to my musicology teacher, George Brown. After a brief chat he looked at me and said, "now tell me about the Mass." I said, "Mr. Brown, I don't know where anything belongs – the music is written but I can't figure what goes where." He said, "oh thank God – if you'd come here and said everything was OK, I would have been worried!" He then says "Creativity is like molten lead – when it finally solidifies, the piece is finished." That was what I needed to hear – I worked all night, and was able to finish it.
It's wild to think that was your first composition – I suppose you'd been in situations with varying degrees of structure for quite some time.
When you listen to the Mass for Pentecost Sunday you can certainly hear the influence of 16th Century music in the piece. I do not have the sense of being able to hear a melody in my head and write it down. I assume that comes from ear training, Juilliard, or whatever. It's a lot easier working on the computer. Basically it was all first played on the piano keyboard and then I would sing a part, and through the keyboard transfer the notes to the computer and then to the transcription software. Thanks to the computer, which had very little memory and a couple of cheap sound modules, I realized I could mix and match to get the sounds that I wanted.
A short story about the Alleluia: I'd just started to work on the computer, a friend came over and I played him examples of what I could do with all this equipment. A month before the score was due, I realized that I had to write the closing part of the Mass, the Alleluia, but I was mentally exhausted. "Wait a minute, that thing I did for my friend." I realized that the example I had composed for him would be perfect. I printed it out on one continuous sheet of paper, tacked it to the wall and begin writing the lyrics below the notes.
It seems like it came together fairly quickly.
I knew the art of the Mass and the liturgy surrounding it. The hardest part was typing the Latin words with all the correct accents. I had just finished typing all the words in Latin when my dog Buster crawled under the desk and accidentally turned off the power – there went 12 hours of work! I really got mad at myself for not saving the material. I worked daily for the better part of a year mixing and matching the nearly 300 sounds on the modules and in the computer, looking for the right sounds to satisfy my ear. Being an instrumentalist and a composer is like painting and sculpture: they're two different things.
In jazz and free music we have the idea of "instant composition," improvising composers, and so forth.
Well, of course, I'm composing when I do a solo concert, improvising within a form. For example, the piece "12 Saxophones" was recorded at a local musician Tommy Comeau's studio. He asked what I was planning on doing. I showed him how to set up the quad delay, went through the piece and he said, "are we finished?" I said, "lets overdub another quad pass and then another." He then realized what my intentions were and said, "it sounds like an orchestra.".
And by this point you'd left the Glass Ensemble, right?
In 1981, my son was 18 years old living in Louisiana working at a gas station to make money to go to school, and somebody came into the station, held it up, and shot him – killed him. That ended my career in New York for all intents and purposes – I came to Louisiana and licked my wounds for three years and didn't return to New York until 1984. Phil came down for the funeral. He asked if I needed some time off, and said "the job will be there when you want to come back." A year later I heard he was going on tour and gave him a call – he said he'd hired a new saxophonist whom he didn't want to fire, and added, "I think you should be doing your own stuff." After hearing that I went into a deeper depression – 11 years working with him and that was the thanks I got. That's how that relationship ended.
But everything happens for a reason and I returned to New York in 1984 to check the scene out after a break. I had dinner with Laurie Anderson one evening and she asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for work, and she said, "what are you doing next week? I have a performance with Trisha Brown and Rauschenberg at BAM. I'm in the pit alone and would like some company – why don't you come and play?" I did that and a week later, her manager asked if I wanted to go on tour with her Home of the Brave production. We did 28 cities in the US and three dates in Japan with Home of the Brave. At the same David Byrne invited me to perform on one song with the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues, and at the same time I met Paul Simon and later worked on Graceland. That was the jump start I needed.
I asked some people why they didn't hire me before, and they said that they thought I worked exclusively with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I said, "damn, I'm a working musician – you should have fucking hired me!" I'd known Laurie since 1974, and I knew the Talking Heads from when they first started. David came to my apartment every day for a while. He finally gets me into a studio and says, "Dickie, you want to do some of your delay stuff?" and I told him "no, I want you to take my sound and completely destroy it." If you listen to "Slippery People" on Speaking in Tongues, the solo at the end that sounds like some sort of weird electronic instrument is my saxophone.
How did you meet Paul Simon?
I went to a concert of Cajun music at Carnegie Recital Hall. Somebody mentioned to me that Paul Simon was there and that I should introduce myself. I was thinking, like, "man, he doesn't need to meet another admirer." I was walking upstairs to get a drink and I thought, fuck it, he knows all the people I worked for, so why not introduce myself. I did and I asked him how he liked the music. He said, "ah, it's okay." I asked him if he had heard the black music of Louisiana – "no, that's what I thought I was coming to hear and I was disappointed." I explained to him that there were basically two types of music in my area of Louisiana, white Cajun music, and black Zydeco music. Paul mentioned that he was working on a project that deals with accordions, and that he wanted to use Clifton Chenier. I told him that Clifton was hospitalized at that time with kidney problems. I mentioned that Buckwheat Zydeco was playing at Tramp's that night and he should check him out. He called me the next morning and said, "find me two more Zydeco bands and find a studio." He then invited me to the studio that evening to listen to what he was working on.
I went, after meeting his engineer Roy Haylee, and Paul sits me down. Roy started playing a tape and Paul began singing in my ear. At the end of the song he then asked me what I thought. I said, "listen Paul, I respect you as a musician and a songwriter, but I've never bought one of your records. Besides that, although I'm usually not intimidated by famous people, this isn't Memorex – this is is you singing live in my ear. All I can think of is that fact." He said, "the same thing happened with me when Dylan sang in my ear, all I could think of was that Dylan is singing into my ear. Get over it." So he played the song again, the tape stopped and I went on and on about how great the music and the musicians were, and so forth, he looked at me pretty perturbed and says, "what about the lyrics?" I said, "I'm a musician – I don't listen to lyrics." He said, "well, why do you think I brought you up here?" So I asked for pencil and paper, wrote some things down and when the playback ended I handed the paper to him. He looked at it, folded it up and put it in his pocket. I'm thinking, God he doesn't like my criticism. We than went out for dinner at a nice old Italian restaurant. After a few glasses of wine, he opened up the paper and said, "this is what I'm looking for, some real criticism. Everyone always says to me 'sounds great, Paul.' This is actual criticism. I want to thank you for that."
A few months later I am back in Louisiana and I get a call from Paul at three in the morning. He's saying "I can't sing, can't write, can't play, I do not like the band and I do not know what I am doing." I said, "what did you do today?" and he said, "well, I turned the master in." I realized he'd been working on it for two and a half years daily, and I said, "oh, so you have nothing to do tomorrow." Silence for a long time. He finally said, "that's why I like you – you know what to say. I must have postpartum depression." A week later he called and said Graceland had sold three million records to date and sales were still climbing.
And this sort of brings us to your post-New York life.
In 1993 I came from Florida to Louisiana for my mother's 100th birthday. Once I realized the situation I decided that I needed to be there for her. I canceled all my upcoming engagements and told people that I would be in Cecilia until either she died or I did, whichever came first. She lasted another two years and by that point I realized that I wanted to see my grandkids grow up, so I decided to stay. Then 9/11 happened and since I'd an apartment directly across from the South Tower for 24 years, I decided this was the final straw so I got the hell out of New York.
Upon my return to Louisiana I met C.C. Adcock, who is a songwriter, guitar player and my next door neighbor. He'd decided to put a band of his favorite musicians together. The result is the Little Band O' Gold. It's a swamp-pop supergroup with the legendary drummer/singer Warren Storm, two saxophones (Pat Breaux and myself), Steve Riley on accordion and vocals, C.C. on guitar and vocals, Richard Comeaux on steel guitar, David Ranson on bass, David Egan on piano and vocals, and Warren Storm drums and vocals. Everyone in this band is a bandleader in their own right. The band began playing on Monday nights at this bar called the Swamp Water. [Promoter/club-owner] Clifford Antone came by once and said this band was the revival of swamp-pop. We've just released our second CD The Promised Land and recently completed two tours of Australia and New Zealand, and we'll tour England tour this summer. There is also a documentary we're in called The Promised Land.
What is swamp-pop?
It's rock and roll music, first generation, and is described as "white boys doing black music very well." It has a very Fats Domino kind of triplet, shuffle beat feeling. You have to understand that I left Louisiana in order to avoid playing this music and here I am full circle playing it and loving it. I also play with a Creole reggae band, True Man Posse, led by Walter Thibeaux. I recently was in Taipei, Taiwan for three months working with Robert Wilson on a music theatre piece called 1433 about the 15th Century Chinese navigator Zheng He. It premiered at the National Theater of Taipei for the International Festival of Taiwan. I acted as musical director, performer and composer along with Ornette Coleman. In addition to that, I have an 80-acre pecan orchard that I manage and I'm working on a book of photos of the images I took in the 70s. There's also a group show that I'm in about the 112 Greene Street Gallery, so the beat goes on! At the moment I'm looking for a commission to write another Mass in honor of St. Cecilia, the third-century patron saint of instrument makers, composers, poets, and the blind.
One thing I often like to have is an overarching philosophy, and with your experiences and your work being so diverse, it's hard to tie it all together.
I'll tell you this – the paintings are paintings and the music is the music. But they're both about individual style. When you see a Rauschenberg, a Lichtenstein or a Warhol, or hear John Coltrane or Miles Davis, you know whose work it is. I hope the same can be said of what I do.
Discography: Philip Glass – Music with Changing Parts (Chatham Square, 1971) ; Richard Landry – Solos (Chatham Square, 1973) ; Richard Landry – 4 Cuts Placed in A First Quarter (Chatham Square, 1973) ; Dickie Landry – Fifteen Saxophones (Northern Lights/Unseen Worlds, 1977/2011) ; Philip Glass – North Star (Virgin, 1977) ; Philip Glass – Einstein on the Beach (Tomato, 1979) ; Richard Landry – Mass for Pentecost Sunday (self-released, 1986) ; Dickie Landry – Solo (Way Down in Louisiana, 2006). Photographs by Brian Ashley, Egon von Furstenberg and Richard Landry. Thanks to Tommy McCutchon. See also other interviews of related interest with Tom Johnson and Phill Niblock.