Ned Rothenberg
I nterview with Sasha Burov
St Petersburg, April 23rd 2004

photo by Caroline Forbes


What were you listening to as a child? Were any of your parents into jazz?

My father was a big jazz fan. He played a lot of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, the whole swing generation. He wasn't a musician, he was a fan; he grew up in Boston, and used to hang out with jazz musicians in the Boston area. He went and heard all those people live: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Chick Webb... In the 30s, you could go to a place like Howard Theater in Boston for 25 cents, and see Chick Webb and his orchestra, a movie, a live show, and perhaps Ella Fitzgerald. That's the generation he grew up in. My mother is an amateur classical pianist, so I grew up listening to her playing Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. I think that my musical talent probably came from her, but my taste from my dad. Still, I play Bach almost every day, so maybe it does have an influence. My first instrument was recorder, when I was six, then I played clarinet, saxophone, flute, and later shakuhachi.

When did you start getting interested in playing improvised music yourself?

When I was 12 or 13. I wasn't any kind of prodigy. By the time I was 18, I was playing standards, listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and having free sessions in people's houses in and around Boston. I was always into black music more, jazz and Motown, Stax, and R&B stuff. I wasn't a fan of Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd, or any of this stuff at the time that it was happening. It wasn't my music. The one rock musician that we all listened to of course was Hendrix - he had total creativity. He was very blues-based in a way, I'm sorry, Jerry Garcia would never be. It's funny, when I went to college everybody listened to The Grateful Dead all day. We'd get together, smoke marijuana, and I'd bring John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, and Art Ensemble and say "Listen to this!" and they'd all go "Oh, yeah man, cool.. let's listen to 'Dark Star' again!" And put on the same Grateful Dead record they had listened to three hundred times! (laughs) I could never make them understand they were basically playing I-IV-V chord progressions over and over again. Actually, now that I'm older, improvising is everything, and I can appreciate The Grateful Dead more now than I did back then.

When did you move to New York?

I stayed in Boston until I was 18, graduated from high school, and went to Oberlin outside Cleveland, where they have a conservatory and a college together - which is nice because you can study music and take academic courses, which was important to me. But it's kind of isolated - an hour outside Cleveland, and there wasn't such a strong jazz program there. For the third year they had a program where you could spend a year in New York and get credit like you had a year at Oberlin. So in 1976-77 I went to New York, I apprenticed with [singer] Joan LaBarbara and [drummer] Bruce Ditmas. I also spent some time with Warren Smith in his studio, and I used to go to Charles Bobo Shaw's place. I got a feel for New York that year. It was also kind of scary for me because I was still learning my instruments and taking lessons with different people, taking some classes in the Manhattan School of Music and staying near there - and upstairs from me was a guy named Bill Blount, a great virtuoso clarinetist who was playing alto in Buddy Rich's band at the time, and he used to practice together with Bob Mintzer, a very chopsy saxophonist. These guys would be playing the Slonimsky book - they'd play this way and then turn over the book, play it backwards and play it upside down, and I'm sitting there playing my long tones on the flute, going "I can't believe I think I might be a musician.." It was very intimidating. Anyway, I did my junior year there and went back to Oberlin. There were a bunch of people doing electronic music and all sorts of different things, and I put together a group with Bob Ostertag and Jim Katzin, and we came to New York. We got this gig at the end of the year with Anthony Braxton. He was out at Oberlin on a residency and he picked me and Bob and a trombonist and two trumpet players and took the five of us on tour in Europe. By 78, I'd finished school, and I went to New York with my girlfriend who is now my wife, and we got an apartment in SoHo, which at that time was still full of artists and musicians. Now it's full of clothing shops.

What was the musical situation in New York at the time?

The loft jazz movement wasn't totally dissolved then, but it was ending. Sam Rivers kept Studio Rivbea going up to, I think, 1980-81. There was Environ which probably closed by 1980, and a place called Soundscape. Julius Hemphill had a place too. Everybody loves to talk about musical scenes, how they influence this or that musical movement, but in fact, in many big cities things depend on real estate. The whole 52nd Street thing happened when it did because at that time there were little cheap brownstones on the street with little clubs in the basements. Later they were ripped out; the scene was really ended by real estate people. Same thing with the loft jazz movement. The places became too expensive, real estate began to take over, and people ended up being dispersed. But when I moved there you could still rent a little basement and have performances there. We were also playing in lofts, basements, a place in Morton Street that Mark Miller had, and Georgio Gomelsky, who was a manager for The Rolling Stones, bought a whole building in Chelsea called Zu Space, and we used to play there. Bill Laswell used to hang out there. This was the genesis of the scene I'm associated with, the Downtown scene. Bob Ostertag heard Eugene Chadbourne play somewhere, and Eugene said "Come to this gig I'm doing with this guy John Zorn", and we went, and then they showed up at our gig, then we went to Zu, and Eugene was playing with Tom Cora, and Toshinori Kondo was there and so on. Music is just like relationships; in a group of people, there are certain people you're interested in, so you call them up and have dinner. We all became friends. People associate Zorn's aesthetic with a lot of this music, because he has gotten so famous, but what I do and what Wayne Horvitz does is completely different from what John does. To me the Downtown scene is very different from the loft jazz thing: there was more of musical unity to what Sam Rivers and Oliver Lake and Henry Threadgill were doing, but for us one of the big influences in the late 70s was that the music world was expanding - you could go to a record shop and get music from Indonesia, Africa, anywhere. Musicians listen to anything they can get their hands on. Nowadays it's become a kind of commercialized musical tourism, but back in the late 70s, it was all wide open and nobody had to meddle with categories. I might go home and listen to an African thing, and then to a Brazilian thing, and then some jazz, and then practice. One of the reasons why the music that came out of the Downtown scene was so different was because we were listening to much more than just each other. Tim Berne, John Zorn, Anthony Coleman and Anton Fier all worked in a record shop, and we used to all go over and listen to things. Paul Simon used to go there too. That's where he discovered all the South African shit.

How come you started playing solo?

In 1978 I made a record [Early Fall] for Eugene Chadbourne's Parachute label, with Bob Ostertag and Jim Katzin). Our group Fall Mountain had some success; we went to Europe a couple of times, and Robert Fripp came to one of our concerts and said something very nice in the paper, Fred Frith too, but then it all suddenly broke up. Not because of personal problems, but because Bob got into politics and went to Central America, and Jim had a stroke and couldn't play violin anymore, which was a real shock - he was just 25. So I was kind of left on my own, and it was like "Am I going to be a creative musician, or am I going to play Broadway shows?" I did a lot of practicing, trying to get pregnant, creatively. And I did.. That was when I developed all the solo techniques that I use. After about six or seven months work, I had that infantile solo music thats on the second side of my own first record, Trials Of The Argo. I played some concerts then, and people were, like, "Wow! This is what you do!". I sent that record to a few people in Europe, especially in Holland, and I was invited to play some concerts. From 1980-81 to 1985 probably 50 or 60 percent of the performances I did were solo. I made three solo LPs [Trials Of The Argo, Portal, Trespass], and was playing mostly alone, though I was still doing occasional gigs with various people, playing John Zorn's large pieces, with New Winds, which was then a quintet, doing some things with dancers... But I was getting this small international reputation with the solo music. I wasn't invited to play in many other small groups, partly because I really wasn't a jazz player at that time. These days I can integrate some more jazz idiom into what I do and still make it sound natural. I think on the Intervals record you certainly hear that. As you get older you stop trying to hide where you are coming from. I don't care that I will never be able to play like Cannonball Adderley. When I was in my twenties I would listen to something like that and say "Why would I ever play jazz, when this guy can play it all?" A lot of young players are struggling with the things that they can't do, as opposed to embracing the things that they can do, and trying to grow organically from that place, they're like "Oh, man, I have to practice all this... If I can't play 'Giant Steps', I'm no good!". Well, try to play "Giant Steps", do your best, but remember that was something that Coltrane made for himself, and it's a very particular thing. You want to push your limits, but you also want to love your limits. So, while I'm going in many directions all the time, I'm trying to keep track of my personality within that. And now I play in certain ways and only Ned Rothenberg plays like this.
Solo playing has become a very natural kind of center of what I do. And its challenges are very clear, which is what makes it easy, in a sense. I'm not trying to conquer the world every time I play solo, I'm just trying to make a few good transitions, create a program with variety. Transitions are always the challenge to me, finding a new way to get from A to B to C.. The material is all there: I have thousands of things, material and variations of material I've generated over 25 years. What makes a good performance different from a bad performance is if everything is speaking really clearly, and whether I'm able to make a successful form. I'm always trying to generate form, compositionally, even if there is no preplanning, even if I'm just improvising. When I do a full solo concert, there's the question of programming and variety. I like repetition in music, but not where the clarinet piece you played in the second set is just like the one in the first. Sometimes that happens, sometimes I get stuck, and fall back into the same little patterns. So the challenge is always there. If I didn't feel any challenge, then I'd be in trouble. If it got to the point where I was playing 350 solo concerts a year, maybe I'd have to look at it, but I don't have that problem yet. I do 25-30 solo concerts a year, which is certainly not too much to have to worry about staying fresh.

Could you touch upon techniques that you use?

Breathing is by far the most important thing. When you use techniques like circular breathing, just having the air going in and out of your body in a powerful way so that you can really control it, is something that I have to check every day. People come and study extended kind of techniques with me, and if they can't breathe right, we have to work on that first.

Do you teach a lot? Have you met any promising young players, somebody you might work with in the future?

Some of the young players I've taught are very good. For example, there was a young Austrian guy, Georg Gratzer, who arranged a lesson with me in Vienna and then one later in New York, and he is getting very good, I think. He's one of those guys who can pick up these techniques very quickly, like "IT TOOK ME A YEAR TO DO THAT, NOW HOW ARE YOU LEARNING THAT IN TEN MINUTES, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!" (laughs) I like teaching, though I've never had an appointed position. Mostly I teach privately, or in residences in a variety of schools including my old college Oberlin.

Until '85 your own projects were almost exclusively solo. What happened after that?

By 1985 I was getting tired of touring alone. It's very lonely travelling around from one town to the other. People are very nice, but you're basically alone all the time. And it gets hard to surprise yourself on a musical level too. You need some fresh input, and the fresh input you get from other musicians, so I began writing the Double Band music, music to play with other musicians. In 85 I went to Japan for the first time and made connections with different Japanese musicians. All sorts of different connections happened about that time, including Semantics with Elliott Sharp and Samm Bennett. That was a real 'New York' band, and we worked a lot. There were some gigs that to me were much better than either record we made [Semantics, Bone Of Contention]. I don't like the sound of those Semantics records. But there's nothing terrible about that. I think a lot of musicians will tell you this. Sonny Rollins comes to mind - great as his records are, none of them gets close to some of his live gigs. We did four or five European tours, and I think it was in its way a success. That group was mostly about rhythm - some of the rhythmic ideas I got in that band ended up developing into the Double Band stuff, and influenced the solo music too. What also influenced me was what we were listening to - Reich, Glass and Riley, but also Indonesian gamelan and African music. The thing that interested me was how to combine that droning repetition with more freedom. Keep that pulse-setting interest, but have spontaneous things happen, and rough edges. With Semantics, we were after that, for sure.
Did you know that Semantics was supposed to tour in Russia? We didn't go because Samm had some other work. So we formed a one-off band called FRAME, with Elliott, Tom Cora and Peter Hollinger. It was 1989, it was one of the first western improvising groups to tour in Russia. ROVA [saxophone quartet] had been here, and Cassiber too, but FRAME was really put together for this tour.

How did that go?

The music was high and low, as you can imagine, but we had a big audience. We did about six concerts. The first was in Vilnius, the thing I remember about that was Elliott's MIDI rack started by itself from a voltage surge. It seemed like some rock-and-roll performance thing: "Well, I guess we go on now?!!" (laughs) We also played Riga, Tartu, Moscow, Kiev.. and think I'm missing one. The Moscow thing was a hilarious story. Melodia, the USSR state record company, wanted to record it. They showed up with a whole truck, a mobile 24-track recording studio, and while the other guys were soundchecking, I went to the truck to try to make a 'deal' with them. What we'd said over the telephone was: "You make the record and give us a couple of hundred copies". But now they said, "Oh no, we have a problem with that, we made a record with Paul McCartney, and people copy and sell these records", and I'm, like, "I don't think you'll have the same problem with us!" (laughs) But anyway, they went off to talk with some people, and I remember that was the first time when I met Nikolay Dmitriev. [Nikolay (Nick, Kolya) Dmitriev - Russian music critic, journalist, festival organizer, instrumental in bringing most of western improvising musicians to Russia in the past 20 years as well as in introducing a number of remarkable Russian musicians to western music community, producer and enthusiast of avant-garde jazz and new music - died two weeks before this interview at the age of 49 - SB] I liked him immediately. He was just acting as a translator. He said: "They're offering you 1 kopeck for every LP they make". "1 kopeck, you mean - half a cent?" (laughs) And he's, like, "Yes.." So, they want to make 1500 LPs and they want to offer us $7.50, and he was just, like, red, like, totally embarrassed. And I said "Well, we can't do it then, can we?". And he said "No, I don't think you can.." (laughs) And so the truck left. The funny thing is now, today, I wish we had done it. Because it was really quite an event, we were playing and people were screaming "FREEDOM!" It was really a wild concert.
But I always remember meeting Kolya. I think about him a lot because he just died. My whole connection with Russia was through him. Not that I don't have any other friends here but he was the one who always made the things happen. We have this children's story about the Little Red Hen who says to all the other animals: "I'm going to make some bread, who will help me plant the wheat?" and they all say, "No, we won't, you go plant the wheat". So Little Red Hen plants the wheat. "I'm going to make some bread, who will help me to water the wheat?" Nobody helps. It keeps going until "OK, who will help me eat the bread?", and they all say "Oh! We'll help you eat the bread!". He was the one doing everything, organizing and making connections, and he was utterly uncorrupt, utterly strict. He had such positive energy and understanding about how to do it - he was making the bread from scratch, all the time.

We had such a "central" person here in St.Petersburg, with Sergey Kuryokhin.

Yes, I knew Sergey. I played with him when he came to New York, I'm guessing about '89? He came to the Knitting Factory and invited different people to play: he wanted to play with Zorn, me, Elliott, Bobby Previte. He was sponsored by these two guys who didn't know anything about music, and I'm sure it had something to do with CIA, because somehow they wanted to nurture anything that was radical. He was playing like improvised Rachmaninov, and we all just stopped, because what he was doing sounded very complete, like "What are we supposed to play with that?" But he's like "No! I want this kind of clash!". It was something very different from what we were interested in, because we were trying to mould something together. Music for us wasn't such a political statement. The last time I saw him must have been in '95, just a few months before he died. He spoke English much better, so we could sit and talk about the changes we'd gone through. I remember he said "Now I'm ready to make music". That last conversation was very different from the interaction we had before, where he wanted to confront the New York scene in a funny way. Sergey was a very good musician, but he had to fight so many political battles. Music had to make a social statement, which is normal in Russia with the whole history and everything.
You can't really compare Kuryokhin with Kolya, because Sergey was also a musician, a creator, he was making something which involved a lot of people. People compare him with Zorn, seems that's because they both involve a lot of people in their work. Musicians have to be selfish to some extent, in order to say "This is my music, and I am worthy of this". Zorn and Kuryokhin do a lot of great stuff, but it's still always about them, and what they are doing. And if the people they involve become known as result, then great, but it's not central to their personalities. Whereas Kolya was much rarer, he was completely selfless, just happy to make things happen.

How did you end up playing on Heiner Goebbels' Man in the Elevator sessions?

Heiner had the idea of having an American band together with this German theatrical presentation, so he did the session in New York. I believe his first choice was Zorn, but he wasn't available and recommended me. Heiner knew me from the Semantics - he'd set up a couple of Semantics gigs at the Botschkop in Frankfurt. I like that record, and I like my playing on it, which is not something I always say. I play some good tenor on that record, and I don't play tenor a lot. But it was just a record date, meaning I went in, didn't record with many other musicians, mostly I was alone in there with Heiner, listening to the other's tracks, putting takes down on tape. He invited me to play on the tour, but I couldn't make it, so he took Dietmar Diesner - a genius replacement, I think. If you know the piece and the way Dietmar looks, kind of like an East German border guard, you know, "tough guy", I'm sure he was much better than I could have been. Arto Lindsay told me he was really amazing.

How did you meet Sainkho Namchylak?

The first time I met her was in Nickelsdorf, Austria, about a year after she came to Europe. She was living in Vienna, and she was in a big group with Peter Kowald and Butch Morris - they made a good CD for FMP [When The Sun Is Out, You Don't See The Stars] - but at Nickelsdorf it was a classic case of too many people onstage, and the sound guy didn't know who was doing what. I could tell she was amazing, but it wasn't easy to hear her. Afterwards, I was rehearsing downstairs for the concert I was playing with [guitarist] Burkhard Stangl, and they all came into the room - and they weren't happy. We caught this kind of chill from them. I didn't know her but I knew she was powerful. About a year later I was doing a solo concert in a festival outside Stuttgart, in a place called Manufaktur, on a double bill with Sainkho and Connie Bauer, the trombone player. I played solo and then they played duo, and that was the first time she heard me. We played a little at the end, together - they invited me to play. And afterwards she said "Do you know, I feel a great connection with you". That was the first time I really heard that incredible cackling voice, it was very exciting. The following Spring I had one of those projects at Moers where I got to invite a bunch of musicians, so I invited Kazue Sawai from Japan, Robert Dick, Carlos Zingaro, Jim Staley, Keiji Haino, Lê Quan Ninh - and Sainkho. And then the Swiss promoter Pius Knussel set up a tour for us as a duo. We did five or six duo tours, including one in the States that I set up, and Kolya did some things here. For five or six years we were very strong. To work as a duo, just with woodwinds is really about dialogue all the time, as opposed to instruments that can make a kind of environment for a singer to sing in. I think for Sainkho it was hard, vocally - she had to sing hard a lot. Now occasionally I play with her group, as a kind of guest, but it's different, it's her stuff. I think the music we did was of its time, and I think it was strong, and I think it's well represented on that CD [Amulet]. Over the years, she's made three duo CDs with woodwind players, one with me, one with Evan Parker [Mars Song] and one with Kang Tae Hwan the Korean saxophone player [Kang Tae Hwan/Sainkho Namtchylak]. Someone might really do some analysis and compare the way I played with Sainkho with the way Evan played with her. I think Sainkho and Evan have only played together maybe ten times, so it's still fresh, and they can probably get together tomorrow and that will still be like the first time. It's very much improvisation. Evan has this high thing with the soprano that matches up with Sainkho's voice in a very particular way. I really like their record, I find it very fresh. But Sainkho and I played for years, and we came up with a repertoire of pieces, almost like composed music. I think I'm the only person from the improvising scene that she's ever worked with like that over a long period of time.

What is your attitude towards documenting your music? Are there any new recordings in the pipeline?

When it comes to freely improvised music, I really like to listen to it live, as a spectator. There is some improvised music that I put out on CD that I'm happy with - I think the record I made with Evan [Monkey Puzzle] is really strong - but I have thousands of tapes of gigs, good gigs, that I don't need to release. I have a very different attitude towards making CDs from some of my friends, people like Evan, or Elliott. Their attitude is albums come out, people know them for a little while, and then it's over. Like they were magazines. Not like each one is perfect, it's just so people know what you're doing. Nowadays everything can be recorded in so much higher quality - this isn't like Charlie Parker recorded by Dean Benedetti in the bathroom - and everybody has a digital tape recorder. We're drowning in material, and drowning in musicians, and everything is being packaged, repackaged. How many times are you going to put out Kind of Blue?
But I'm much more fussy - I'm just not one of these people who wants to put out 12-15 CDs a year. I want something that will stand the test of time; to me every time you make a recording it's a kind of final statement. I mean, I love it when somebody says to me "I still listen to that record you made with Paul Dresher in 1991 [Opposites Attract].." As opposed to people who buy a record, listen to it for a couple of months, and never put it on again. A lot of the records that are made as "magazines" might have brilliant stuff on them, but the listener has to pick it out. It's not like "here is a recording, this is my piece and I stand behind everything on this". I hope it's not pretentious to say that I want the music to have a classic role in the listener's life. I mean, I listen to Pierre Fournier playing Bach cello suites, I've listened to those forever, I've listened to Aretha Franklin forever, I would like to make records that people would like to listen to periodically.. forever. And I think that implies a certain responsibility to make a real finished piece. Intervals is not just a document of a certain time and place, this is my solo music at this time, and I stand behind it. For solo music it's better for me to put it out myself, distribute it to a few places, sell at concerts, and keep control - I want it to look it in a certain way, I want it to sound a certain way. As far as newer projects go, we have a new group with Samm and Uchihashi Kazuhisa, the Japanese guitarist, called R.U.B., which is I think very interesting. There's a CD out [Are You Be] on my label Animul. The next thing I'm going to release is a duo with Masahiko Sato, a great Japanese pianist, which will be released in Japan on EWE Records. One of the things we play is "Round Midnight" in the style of a honkyoku [traditional solo shakuhachi piece].

You seem to have a special liking for Monk. He is the only classical jazz composer whose music you have recorded.

Monk connects into anything, because as a composer he stands almost outside of jazz, unlike Ellington, who is a genius composer, but the embodiment of his age. Monk is almost like Bach. I can picture somebody in the year 2500 playing "Criss-Cross", and it will still be Monk, and it will fit together. There's something about the fact that it's so basic. I haven't done a lot of Monk, but somehow it fits into my thing.

Do you see composing and improvising as two different things?

People often set free improvisation and composed music up as opposing forces, but to me they're just two different solutions to the problem of how I express myself as a musician. Sometimes I've played freely improvised pieces that sound like they were composed. I played a duo in Japan last year with [bass clarinettist] Gene Coleman in a festival where most of the people were playing noise, turntables, and contact microphone stuff. And everybody was like "My God! It sounded like it was written out note for note!" It was partly a reaction to all the chance music that was going on. In some ways I'm a very old-fashioned musician, which makes me a little strange in the scene that I come from, because the sonic vocabulary of what I do is often very avant-garde, yet the way I make music is really very old-fashioned. I'm just trying to hear it and play. In a certain sense it's no different than Coleman Hawkins trying to hear a different way of playing "Body and Soul". I like to surprise myself, and sometimes things come out that I wasn't expecting, but either way I try to hear something past what I'm doing. Who I'm improvising with completely changes it too, if it's with another bass clarinetist, or a singer like Catherine [Jauniaux], it's a very different chemistry. I like to play with good harmonic improvisers, people who actually hear what they're going to play. Meaning they can whistle, sing a line before they play, and hear it as they go, as opposed to just doing something and then listening to what happens, which is what most people with computers and contact microphones do. They don't really know exactly what they're going to get. I'm not criticizing, but that's not me.

What do you think of improvising with larger groups?

I'll be honest with you, five is almost the maximum for me. If the music is organized in some way, like Zorn organizes his game pieces, or Butch Morris, or Anthony Braxton (who was in fact doing this kind of conduction thing with us back in 78), it can be interesting, but for me totally unstructured playing with large groups is much less successful. But then I'm more into intimate settings across the board in with all kinds of music; I love Bach, I love Beethoven, but when I listen to Bach I listen to cello and violin suites, viola da gamba, things with harpsichord. I almost never put on the Brandenburg concertos. I love Beethoven piano music and string quartets, but I almost never listen to his symphonies. I love Chopin but I never listen to Wagner, and I don't much care for Mahler. With jazz I don't listen to big bands very much. I love late Coltrane but I'd much rather listen to Interstellar Space than Ascension. Derek Bailey's Company type set-up, where you have eight or nine people and play different combinations, is fine, but when everybody thinks they've got a solo at once, you get too much happening and it's a mess. Large ensembles only work for me when the people self-edit and don't play too much. And then what happens is that you end up with trios and quartets anyway.
This opposite thing, the whole thing today of playing very little, a kind of contemporary improvised John Cage music, is for me very repressed. I've heard some really beautiful things, but after two hours of it you're really bored. I can appreciate the fact that everybody is listening really closely, and nobody is forcing their ego on everybody else, but.. they don't fuck! There is no orgasm, and I like something orgasmic in music. Or to state it more politely, I need tension and release. I understand the motivation behind the spaced-out stuff - if music doesn't have enough space, it's a problem - but I just like to be able to create any shape any night, and that could be something really dense, or really spaced-out, and it can all happen in the same concert. Again, I'm kind of old-fashioned: I like music with variety. That relates to another thing that European improvisers do very differently from New York improvisers, something that comes from Derek Bailey, the idea that they won't do anything idiomatic. They won't play a chord change you can hear, or a rhythmic pattern that you can hear, they won't play any pulse. They end up creating an idiom out of what they are not going to do. Derek Bailey wrote this book about how he's doing non-idiomatic improvisation, as compared to 'idiomatic improvisors - flamenco/jazz/Indian classical, etc. Derek is a great musician, but we see now that he's absolutely idiomatic as well, except that his rules are mostly negative rules ("I won't do this, I won't do that"). What he does is play arhythmically, inharmonically and with lots of attention to sounding space, and he does it masterfully, but if he doesn't know that's an idiom then he's fooling himself. I think players in New York are much more comfortable with the fact that it's all idiom anyway. We are people in human society, we're going to play things that sound like other things. If I want to play a 12-bar blues, I can do it. Of course it has to do with who I play with - I'm not going to play a 12-bar blues with Catherine [Jauniaux], because it's not her thing, but when I'm playing with Marty Ehrlich or Tim Berne - saxophone players - we're going to use that if we want. And to say "I'm not going to use any of the saxophone history", it's crazy. Even Evan Parker, as much as he has his own thing, when he plays with Steve Lacy, he plays like Steve, because he wants to play something where he can share something. That makes sense to me.

When did you start playing shakuhachi?

I started with Dary John Mizelle who was teaching composition at Oberlin, when I was 20. He played what I would call "naîve shakuhachi": he built the instrument himself, and taught himself, but it was the first time I'd heard the instrument, and the records of the masters he told me about really moved me: a very particular personal kind of melodic movement, full of colour and full of space. When I got to New York I studied with Ralph Samuelson, a wonderful player of the kinko school. For a long time I did this as a kind of personal meditative project, because the instrument was originally designed for meditation, not public performance. I played it for 7 years before I played it in public. In 1986 I got a grant to go to Japan for 6 months, learned some Japanese, and studied with two very great shakuhachi teachers, Katsuya Yokoyama and Goro Yamaguchi. Goro Yamaguchi was the 'Living National Treasure' at that time. Yokoyama sensei is the great shakuhachi player who played Takemitsu's "November Steps", this piece for orchestra, biwa and shakuhachi. (The biwa player was one of my all time favorite musicians, Kinshi Tsuruta. If you ever heard any of the film scores that Takemitsu did for Kurosawa, they're playing on some of these as well.) He was also a student of Watazumi-do, an old Zen monk who played shakuhachi, and also an amazing player, amazing person.

How would you compare the past and present-day Japanese scenes?

The late 80s and early 90s was a kind of Golden Age there, but we didn't know it. Japan was really on top of the world economically, and every department store had a concert hall and a museum. I would do weeklong tours up and down Japan, playing in Seibu department stores in their concert halls, very nicely produced concerts, usually very well attended. Nothing paid incredibly well, but it all paid, and if you did five gigs a week, you could do fine and sell a lot of CDs. Then in the mid 90s the economy began to crash, and the concerts were the first things that they cut. They never really made money for the companies of course, they were just for prestige. Today there's still a lot of improvised music going on in Tokyo, but nobody's paying anymore. The venues that pay are much more mainstream jazz. People like Otomo and Umezu, or Uchihashi, play a lot in Europe.

What are your experiences with performing in Europe?

Europe's been more constant but it changes as well - I played in Holland and Belgium a lot in the early 80s, and I think they had enough of me for a while; now I'm starting to play there again. I never played in Italy till about 1990, and now it's the best place for me. Maybe that's because they never invited me in the 80s. Again, there's economics: nobody is going to Germany like they used to. There they've imposed this foreigner tax on all performers: for an official gig we're 60 percent more expensive than we were just a few years ago - and we don't get the extra money. France has always been very protectionist, never very open. It can vary a lot from place to place - I went to play in Bordeaux, France, and they asked me if I was a disciple of Joe McPhee! In Bordeaux at the time, it seemed Joe McPhee was like Miles Davis! (laughs) Then you go somewhere else, and nobody even knows who he is. It's funny. When I play, there are certain cities where I get a fairly big audience, because I've played there over the years. In Karlsruhe in Germany I used to play for hundreds of people for a solo concert. That was nice. Then you go to some other place a couple of hundred kilometers away and nobody knows who you are. One of the things that's a little sad in Europe, especially in Germany and Austria, is not that the audiences are not there, but that they're getting older. Of course, you want to play for your contemporaries, but you want to get the feeling that young people are coming also.

Sasha Burov's complete interview - twice as long as this one, with soundbites too - is available online at Check out other related PT interviews with Heiner Goebbels, Eugene Chadbourne, Gene Coleman and Fred Frith. Thanks to Ned Rothenberg for proofreading and photo permission.