Interview with James Moore
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I took piano and clarinet lessons from a younger age, and it was my older sister who had the guitar (a small nylon-string on which she strummed Cat Stevens tunes.) I think I was 13 when I first dug it out from under her bed and started teaching myself from a book that was in the case. I definitely had adolescent fantasies of rock-stardom, but I think fundamentally I was interested in the challenge and process of learning the instrument. I pretty much never put the thing down and a year or so later my grandmother bought me a better instrument for my 8th grade graduation. At the time I was into many of the bands you would expect of a teenager in the early 90s, but I was already seeking out more unconventional music and discovering artists through late-night college radio. My first “solo album” at age 14 definitely reflected these influences, for better or worse. It featured a duet for piano and hair dryer, a guitar solo mimicking the sound of our dial-up modem connection, and several tunes utilizing a crude multi-track system of home stereo tape decks.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
When I started studying at University of California, Santa Cruz I knew I wanted to major in music. I aspired to be a composer, and I took as many music classes as humanly possible – electronic music, jazz improvisation, Indonesian gamelan, North Indian classical music, and Tuvan throat-singing to name a few. As a requirement I had to focus on a classical instrument, and I assumed the jump to classical guitar would be easy. As you might expect, I was sorely mistaken. However, starting from square one, I was brought back to the same exciting sense of discovery from when I first started playing. I really committed myself and I was lucky to have a very dedicated teacher, Mesut Özgen. By the end of the program I might say that I was a somewhat-presentable classical guitarist. Two years later I went to the Yale School of Music to pursue a master’s degree and to study with Benjamin Verdery, another important teacher in my life.
Why did you decide to play and record The Book of Heads?
I was in grad school and on the hunt more outside-of-the-box repertoire, and a friend of mine had some bootleg photocopies of the Heads. I had followed Zorn’s music since I was young, but I did not know the pieces existed. I was immediately obsessed, and knew that one day I would have to play the whole set. It wasn’t until years later when I had moved to New York and began working in Zorn’s circles that I formally proposed the idea and played a few of them for him. I was nervous at first, but at a definitive moment while I was execturing a particularly ridiculous passage Zorn suddenly burst out in laughter, and I figured things must be going well. After that meeting, the rest of the project naturally unfolded.
What kind of difficulties have you found playing these passages? I saw the scores… sometimes they are like… comics….
While there are certainly elements of the pieces that are open to interpretation, I took all of the notation and instructions on the score quite literally, paying close attention to how things were laid out concerning time, dynamics, and relative pitch. Working with Zorn soon revealed many more elements of specificity. The biggest challenges are when several techniques happen simultaneously and/or occur in quick succession. The process of developing an approach and choreography to these moments was grueling and maddening, but once I found effective solutions I was able to reach a fluidity with each piece.
Your is the third Book of Heads’s complete recording.. wha do you think are the main differences with Marc Ribot’s versions?
I love Ribot’s recording, and I have enjoy checking out the other renditions that are out there. I think the beauty of these pieces is that while they maintain a strong compositional identity, each one allows an individual’s personality to really shine. Earlier this year, Ribot and I shared a show and we both played some of the Heads (we even played one of them simultaneously!). It was a great time, and I would say simply that I sounded like myself and he sounded like Ribot (which is to say, uncomparably awesome).
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
Absolutely. Improvisation is a general term with a wide range of applications and associations, and it can be used to any degree in classical music, jazz, death metal, mariachi and whatever else you like. I have never subscribed to the idea purity in any genre. We all need to make our music, apply our skills and interests accordingly, and call it what we like.
If you listen to a different interpretation of a song you already played and you want to perform do you take care of this listening or do you prefer to proceed in complete independence?
I love to hear other interpretations of the music I play – it is especially cool to hear a rendition of a piece that I premiered or commissioned. Not only am I happy that the music has reached others, but I am excited and in awe of how different the performances can be, even with the most strictly notated music.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of the music flow with no particular interest in its chronological course, in our disco-music library before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this be a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision?
Or maybe, a natural arrival point? The fact that so much music can co-exist on our computers and in the virtual world parallels globalization in other aspects of society. The only “risk” I see in regard with how music is consumed today (other than financially, which is a whole other discussion) is that it is not as easy as it could be to access information regarding the music that we are hearing. It would be wonderful to see an electronic music format evolve that provides better context for the music we are experiencing. The other side of the coin is that with so many resources online, curious listeners can find a wealth of information if they choose to seek it out.
I’ma Dither’s fan, I have your first record and the John Zorn’s Olympiad Vol 1: Dither Plays Zorn ‘s cd… when you will release your next record?
We are currently editing and mixing our third record, and it’s a monster. Details forthcoming, but it will be out within the next year – Stay tuned!
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
Impossible question, but here is one possible answer:
Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Aretha Franklin – Hey Now Hey (On the Other Side of the Sky)
Glenn Gould plays The Goldberg Variations (1981)
Clara Rockmore – The Art of the Theremin
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I’m currently finishing up an album with my acoustic group The Hands Free, and I’m composing quite a bit. I’ve been writing a cycle of music for pianist Kathleen Supové and The Rhythm Method String Quartet, as well as solo pieces for bassist James Ilgenfritz and accordionist Nathan Koci. On the gigging frontier my next big engagement is a summer of shows with The Santa Fe Opera performing a new work by Mason Bates – he has written a beautiful and grand piece about Steve Jobs which has a featured finger-style steel-string guitar part.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
To get Trump out of the White House. Seriously, I have been searching for effective ways to be politically active through music, and it has become all the more pressing to me in today’s political climate. I think Pete Seeger nailed it by creating beautiful music that was welcoming to all, while spreading a message of compassion and openness. There have to be ways big and small, however weird one’s music is, to help bring on progressive change. I’m searching for that.