Interview with Richard Osborn
The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?
I was into classical piano as a teenager, mostly self-teaching, when the folk music revival and civil rights movement swept me up and got me to switch to the guitar. Mississippi John Hurt was the one who moved me the most at that time. It wasn’t until I heard John Fahey and Robbie Basho that I was really struck with the depth of expression possible with the acoustic steel string.
Shall we talk about Robbie Basho? You studied with him.. what kind of person he was?
Robbie, although a creative genius, was very eccentric. He seemed to live mostly in an inner world inhabited by spirit entities and images of his imagination, more than on this planet. He spoke as though he were an ambassador from another plane, claiming knowledge of other worlds, of other cultures and even tens of thousands of years earlier on this planet. At the same time, he was a totally gentle and even courtly person. He had tremendous “gravitas” as a performer. In my view, he was almost a prisoner of his own “psychism” and the synesthesia he experienced (tones seen as colors)
How did he teach music and guitar?
In my experience, Robbie was not a good teacher. This was really unfortunate, not just for me personally, but because I believe he would have benefited greatly from establishing a “school of playing” and having active disciples. Mostly our lessons consisted of him showing me how to play his pieces and then some time playing together. Because of the strength of his personality, this usually created a “contact high”.
Have you ever met John Fahey?
Fahey was the first guy to really knock my socks off with explorations on the guitar. I heard him a couple of times at the old Jabberwock in Berkeley. Later, I arranged for him to come play at Stanford where I was a student. Like Basho (but in a totally different way) he was another genius locked inside of his own interior world. I met him before alcohol had really started to affect his concert appearances. He was clearly uncomfortable with being a public performer, which I can identify with!
Why did you stop playing? I read about an accident…
I was still getting my musical bearings through the 1970’s. Improvisation was a real struggle, and I took 3-4 years off to study classical guitar. Then in 1980 I was doing a wood carving, and, being inexperienced, one day the chisel slipped and severed the nerve that operates the muscle of opposition in my left thumb. I thought I was going to live the rest of my life without an opposable thumb! A year after the accident, an orthopedic surgeon was able to reconnect the nerves that operate that muscle. I had an opposable thumb again, but absolutely no strength. I had already shifted all of my creative energy into painting, after the initial catastrophic blow.
Then you reappeared in 2010 and you started to release new records like “Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations”, “Freehand” and now this “Endless”… how do you start to play again?
After about 15 years, I had developed enough strength in my left thumb to be able to think that I might play the guitar again. Even so, it took 10 years to both rebuild the strength and to regain my chops. During that time I worked mostly on classical repertoire, because the tension on nylon strings is a good 40% less than steel strings and because classical technique develops the “full tool kit” of technique. I played my first public raga improvisation at a music camp around 2005.
Have you ever studied or play classical guitar music too?
As above: I taught myself classical pieces on the steel string in the 1960’s, then studied classical guitar seriously for 3-4 years in the 1970’s. Again, when I was rebuilding my chops after the accident, I found an excellent teacher (Bahram Behroozi) who helped me a lot. I wish I had the time to maintain my classical repertoire, but I still do play several preludes by Bach as well as his Chaconne, several famous tremolo studies, and a couple of pieces by Barrios almost every day.
What does improvisation mean for your music research?
When I was younger, I struggled with improvisation. But when I came back to the guitar after the long forced hiatus, improvisation became the essential component of my approach to playing. I was determined to not be the prisoner of anyone else’s pieces any more. Improvising means “living free and clean” and unencumbered, attentive to one’s musical surroundings and ready to investigate what is interesting. Improvisation also means that you yourself are totally “on the line”: you have to develop technical competence off course, but you know that your own inner states and the totality of your being are “at stake”, are brought into audibility and visibility. I like to call my style of playing “free raga style”, to be sure that its association with the music tradition of Indian classical music is understood. But this also means that I agree with Indian’s music being considered an integral part of one’s spiritual journey. As Ali Akbar Khan has said, “these songs are not meant for entertainment, but for the soul to journey to God.” It would sound pretty “inflated” for me to say something like that, but that kind of mindfulness is at the very root of my approach to playing. Obviously, in the West we have a strong tradition of improvisation in jazz, and jazz studies have been very helpful to me too.. I am still hoping my music may be part of a movement to bring the raga approach to music to the West, but without necessarily incorporating all of Indian spirituality and cosmology.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
This is a great question. One of the things that bedevils Western music is a kind of false perfection. This tends to get people obsessed with technique that can rob you of your soul. Jazz is a great antidote to that: you learn that any “bad” (i.e. unintended or out-of-the-framework) note is just an invitation to something new and exciting. Any wrong note can be seen as the leading tone to another “correct” note. Or it can indicate a completely new harmonic context and direction. Miles Davis was famous for improvising off “mistakes” made by his fellow musicians, turning to play the new harmonic context in which the “bad” notes will make sense. Interestingly, I have found that technical studies help to cleanse the ear, because they are often chromatic and intentionally ignore harmonic “meaning”. When I land a note improperly or fumble it, this can also lead to a nice new syncopation as I recover.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
I’m probably not the right person to ask about this, as I am kind of like a “music monk” or an “ivory tower guitarist”. As with art, the problem is that the personality type that is required to market oneself is the exact opposite of the typical creative personality. If you don’t have that “gene” (as I don’t), you need to find someone who will advocate for you and to seek public endorsement through good reviews in the right places. The music business has become decentralized and democratized, and it is easy to produce one’s own work. The down side of that is that there are a million artists out there clamoring for attention, and it’s hard to find one’s perfect audience. I’m hoping that we develop more of “community based” arts, that is, communities who recognize the value of the person and their art and are willing to support their efforts. The artist needs to be concentrating on his/her art!
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Well, I take the question literally: what I would really want with me on a desert island, the things that would give me true sustenance and not just nod me out into unconsciousness. That makes the answer easy for me, as these are albums that I do keep returning to:
1. Bach, “Mass in B Minor” (1960 Robert Shaw Chorale version); I have been listening to this for 50 years
2. Ali Akbar Khan: any of several ragas, these days my favorite is Bageshwari Kanada, a performance he gave in Germany in 1990, but I’ve been listening to Ragas Chandranandan and Misra Mand for 50 years now
3. Keith Jarrett: the Sun Bear Concerts
4. Nanae Yoshimura, Art of the Koto, Vol. 3
5. Duets with the Spanish Guitar, Laurindo Almeida and Sally Terry
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
I really enjoy playing with a good tabla player, just to begin with. For mutual flights of musical improvisation, I have played with a great flautist and a great pianist in the past. So for the future, I’m hoping to get together with percussionists, other like-minded guitarists, and for a good meld of different sounds: flute, cello, violin.
As for listening, my typical day is about 1/3 each of world music (mostly Indian and Near Eastern), classical, and jazz/folk. My current enthusiasm is for the Indian vocals of Kishori Amonkar and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. But I also typically will swing from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier to the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
Your next project? What are you working on?
I’m thinking of an album that would be about those decades of my life where I was not playing publicly, just living life and painting and writing. The album’s concept would be about a “hidden life”, the interior life that I prize. This was inspired by the recent discovery of a concert tape from around 1972 where I was opening for Robbie Basho. It was a little spooky to hear myself from 45 years ago! The album will include the first and only “cover” I will ever do of a Basho tune because it’s a raga style form that allows free expression, and the particular song does express what I call “the hidden life of a bureaucrat”, the unsuspected beauty that can reside in every person we meet. It may also cover a deconstruction of John Fahey’s music. And a piece, not yet composed, about “Lessons from Abstract Painting”, because my years of painting actually helped me a lot to understand what improvising in music is all about.