Interview with Enrico Merlin
When did you start playing guitar and why?
I was fourteen. At eleven I bought with a friend of mine, the Beatles’ White Album. The reasons for this choice still remains a little mystery, but looking back in my remote memory, I can say that one of the first indelible memories of my life is about music, and in particular about Beatles. I have this vivid image of me sitting on the kitchen table of the small apartment where I lived with my parents in Milan with the radio transmitting “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Whereas the single was released in November of 1968, I was four and a half years. Probably there must have been an imprint of some kind, but the reasons why this song has caught my attention, remains a mystery. Another piece that is related to my early childhood, even prior to the Beatles’ song, is “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” by Harry Belafonte. This one has probably more to do with the love that always had for black music.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I’m pretty much self-taught. I had one teacher (who today however is my accountant, and his son was my student) in the early stages of learning, but he had an important role in my involvement in the world of improvised music. He was (and is) a jazz musician and then perhaps this was inevitable, but what I know is that for me improvisation means extemporaneous composition and research of unusual and possibly unpredictable textures, timbre, dynamics and expressive.
After the first experiences with Blues, Rhythm’n’Blues and pseudo-Prog groups, I began my personal journey towards Jazz and improvised music boundaries (even more extreme).
What guitars do you play or have you played?
Unlike many colleagues, I am not one who likes to frequently change instruments, but … I do not remember exactly, but I think I bought the last guitar over 10 years ago. It was an acoustics Ibanez purchased for € 150 from a student. I needed a fighting instrument … My main guitar is a PRS (equipped with 10-52 strings) pre-Santana (the one without tone controls), then a Telecaster-like hand crafted (with a Stratocaster neck and two pick ups out of the norm). My “true” acoustic guitar is a Jean Larrivée Jumbo, an amazing instrument! In the last times (for example, for one of three records recorded recently in duo with saxophonist Massimiliano Milesi) I played a Hoyer semi-acoustic (apparently made in 1963), that resembles a cross between a L5 and a Super 400. I had set it aside for ten years because I thought that it played a “too Jazz” naturally sound , but now I can manage it as I wish. Today it seems absurd that I have set aside for so long, but even in this case, it’s maturation processes. I think.
You are rightly considered one of the leading experts about Miles Davis. How did start your passion for this person, and especially how did you manage to track down all of his musical sources?
Again the story goes a long way, but let’s say that I have always had a love for details, about records and everything related to the music’s world. Initially I would just correct the information on the records’ covers and then I started to collect his unreleased recordings (bootlegs, radio recordings and private photographs, etc.). At a later stage I realized that Miles directed the musical flow through a simple but effective system of sound signals, which I called “coded phrases.” I wrote over a small essay that was published as the liner notes on two record editions, and for that reason I was invited to the “2nd Miles Davis Conference ‘, held at Washington University in St. Louis, in 1996. There I met Teo Macero (Miles’s historical producer) and slowly the story is woven unpredictable interweaving and continues to this day.
Why writing a book about Miles did you decide to concentrate on Bitches Brew? How was born ” Bitches brew: genesi del capolavoro di Miles Davis “?
The book is part of this process. After attending the conference in St. Louis I received a handwritten letter from a professor, Veniero Rizzardi, curator of the Luigi Nono’s archive on the Giudecca in Venice. He was interested to compare the working methods of the great contemporary composers with Davis’s one. It all started there, in the late ’90s. Then we went back and we discovered new things. The meeting with the enlightened publisher Luca Formenton by Il Saggiatore was so decisive. The publishing house had recently published Ashley Khan’s book about Kind of Blue. The volume speculated on Bitches Brew was configured as a worthy result. Indeed, Ours is a book very different in style and content. We are not critical, but musicians-musicologists who love to write about music.
Personally I consider the electric period between 1968 and 1975 as the Miles’s best period, the most fertile, the most creative, one in which, more than at other times in his career he anticipated the future, what do you think about his Electric guitar’s use in those years? I really admire the work of Peter Cosey …
Bingo! Pete Cosey was an extraordinary innovator. No one like him has been able to fit himself in the Blues’s closed contexts (see his revolutionary contribution in the controversial “Electric Mud” by Muddy Waters) before moving to the band of Miles, in the period generally less loved by the “purists”. A mixture of Africanism, Indian and South American flavors, twelve-tone music, Funk, total improvisation, total unpredictability. In that period Miles abolishes the electric piano, instead reinforces the set with an electric guitar, then adds the electric sitar, then another guitar, then at some point will have even three guitars in the band. Unfortunately the only official testimony of this phase is the second record of the “Dark Magus”’s album but in the private recordings’ circuit there are several sound documents.
How was born the idea of a book like “1000 dischi per un secolo. 1900-2000”,this is not the classic book’s reviews …?
No, certainly not. Just as this is not a book about the records that I consider fundamental, because (in my opinion) “beautiful.” The selection was made on the basis of the coefficient of innovation of each of the sound works examined, regardless of kinds and styles. Another important common thread is the phonographic support’s evolution.
What were and are your main musical influences?
In terms of listening, I would say many. We can say that this goes as told before from my first experiences of conscious listening related to the Beatles, to arrive at the wildest avangarde. As a guitarist, I think I have crossed different seasons also very distant in between themfar from a stylistic point of view, but for many years, one of my goals was to transcend and include the past, trying always to bring out my personality, even when, for fun , I like to bring out some of my most direct influences, from Scofield to Frisell, from Derek Bailey to Ry Cooder.
How do you express your musical “form” as a performer and as an improvisor, whether you’re playing “solo” or with other musicians? Do you develop a “form” by default making adjustments when necessary, or you let the “form” itself to emerge depending on the situation, or exploits both creative approaches?
An integrated approach is always important for me to effectively address the performing and / or creative act. For some musicians, the music is a means to an other end, for others a starting point.
What is the significance of improvisation in your music research? Do you think we can get back to talk about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic one or we’re forced to leave and turn our attention to other repertoires like jazz, contemporary, etc?
Even on improvisation, there are a series of fantasies that over the years have been consolidated. If we think about improvisation as a set of sound’s operations built through melodies, harmonies and rhythmic variations interactions on a preplanned structure, then the chances of creating unreleased paths are very few. In fact, alternative forms of improvisation exist substantially since the invention of the synthesizer and are represented by a now considerable sound documentation, but in the most conservatives ambients are still considered as experimental, research, ruminations highbrow. You have to work hard to counter this backward-thinking, not obviously refusing works that have made music great, but certainly saying with who organizes and writes and continues to believe that music is only the past one.
How does your methodology music is influenced by the community of people (musicians and otherwise) with which you collaborate? Change your approach in relation to the one who directly or indirectly receive from them? If you listen to a different interpretation of a song you already played or who want to keep in mind to perform this listening or prefer to proceed in complete independence?
In my more intense and deeper musical experiences I have seen that the relationship and communication, also not-verbal, are structural rather than a compendium. Even in the solo performance I’m deeply influenced by the vibrations that come from the public. This does not mean that we can find ourselves in the situation where we radically deviate our music’s path to acquiesce any requests from the public. It is something much deeper, that only those who have a certain kind of sensitivity can understand. Someone, even among colleagues, confuses this attitude with self-conseit, but in fact this is exactly the opposite. This is a processing’s process that has required years of hard work of addition, and most importantly, subtraction. What remains is dynamically evolving, so it never the same, but it is based on solid convictions, necessary to be able to present our work without excessive fears. What you do, especially in the so-called world of informal art, needs this kind of approach, a mixture as balanced as possible, firm convictions, permeability and comparison.
I ask a little bit provocative question about music in general, not only about contemporary or avant-garde. Frank Zappa in his autobiography wrote: “If John Cage, for example, said” Now I put a contact microphone on my throat, then I drink carrot juice and this will be my composition “, then his gargling would qualify as a COMPOSITION, because he applied a frame, declaring it as such. “Take it or leave it, now I want this to be music.” Do you think that this could be a valid statement to define a music ‘s genre, just say this is classical music, this is contemporary and it’s done? Does it still makes sense to talk of “genre”?
One of the main reasons why I wrote my book “1000 dischi per un secolo» was to demonstrate that the idea that “music is a universal language” is in fact now considered idiotic. Zappa’s speech contains in itself a major challenge. In some ways he is at the same level as much of Cage’s music. Who still thinks in terms of gender in the XXI century, who is hiding behind the style, shows a tribal and surpassed approach. Music is made of languages. Nobody would ever dream to sayt “Japanese poetry sucks,” if he doesn’t speak Japanese and he doesn’t know poetry’s dynamics of this people. Yet the world full of idiots who allow themselves to say what Gezz is and what is not, that if there are those features then it is rock, that composed music is superior to improvised one or vice versa … In the contemporary age, in informal art, it is certain that a caption, more than the frame, sometimes can be useful to help understand the process that led to the creation of the artwork. Not required, however, or at least not always. In any case, I must report that my latest album is titled “Unframed … Straight Ahead!”
Berlioz said that composing for classical guitar was difficult to do because you had to be a guitarists, this phrase has often been used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar than other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time these words have been more and more “denied” by the growing interest that the guitar (whether classical, acoustic, electric, midi) collects in contemporary music, not to mention the success in pop music, where electric guitar is now synonymous with rock ….. what you think this is true even in the phrase of Berlioz?
Soprattutto negli ultimi tempi la cosa è diventata pericolosamente tragica. La materializzazione del supporto fonografico ha portato a un pressoché totale smembramento delle opere sonore così concepite in origine. Credo che ciò che tu dici sia molto vero. E preoccupante. Soprattutto per i più giovani. Essi perdono il senso della sequenza degli avvenimenti e l’importanza della coesione.
Luciano Berio wrote “the preservation of the past has a too negative way, as it becomes a way to forget the music. The listener gets an illusion of continuity that allows him to select what apparently confirm that same continuity and censor everything that seems to bother him”, what kind of role the historical and musicological research could have in this context?
This is one of the reasons why I don’t like to be defined musicologist. I think that t it would be more appropriate to talk about analysis of evolutionary processes, instead of preservation of the past. Transposition of experiences alter in the context of the contemporary is much more interesting, challenging and effective. This process instead cages (as it might seem at first glance) actually unleashes creativity. Knowing is Key. But remember, as Richard Feynman said, that prior knowledge is necessary to stimulate curiosity.
I sometimes feel that in our time music history to flow without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discothèque before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this present a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision? A “globalization” of music?
Especially in recent times it has become dangerously tragic. The materialization of the phonographic support has led to an almost total break-up of the sound works as originally designed. I think what you say is very true. And worrying. Especially for younger people. They lose this sense of the sequence of events and the importance of cohesion.
Usually I like to ask what are your five favorite records, to have always with you .. the classic five records for the desert island .. after reading your book about the discography of the last century “1000 dischi per un secolo. 1900-2000”… I’m a little worried to ask you this question … what are they? What music do you usually listen to?
So, for me this is a big problem … I mean to answer you. I’m really an omnivore, then in my head there are three types of selection of sound works:
1. The records that I consider fundamental in music history
2. The records that have been essential in my training
3. The records with which, although they may not be masterpieces, I am in great affinity
When I painstakingly compiled a list of the 1000 records for a century, I have found myself many times in difficulty. Some of the records that I love most in fact they have not found a place because of the criteria upon which the book. I think about “Thanks I’ll Eat It Here” by Lowell George, “Shadows and Light” by Joni Mitchell, “Metal Fatigue” by Allan Holdsworth. It does not mean, however, that these are my favorite records. These are records that every time I play them, I warm my heart. Then there are the Beatles, all Zappa, King Crimson, Miles Davis almost everything, all (or most) Ry Cooder, any rusty thing by Jimi, the second Viennese school, Derek, a lot of Zorn’s things, John Fahey in industrial quantities. In the past (as mentioned) doses of Scofield, Frisell and the like. Debussy (I own the integral of his works, in multiple editions …). The music for the lute, in particular performed by Hopkinson Smith. I stop …
What are your five indispensable scores?.
Damn, I’m going straight off, let’s see what comes out. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground) / Paris Texas, Tomorrow Never Knows, Lush Life, Little Wing
My blog is also read by young students and graduates, what advice would you give to those who, after years of study, decided to start a career as a musician?
Always be yourself. Do not imitate anyone, unless it’s a quote or a tribute but it must be made explicit, sometimes even verbally. Fight for independence. Reject comfortable paths. Aim originality … at all costs. I love a phrase by Jerry Garcia, who said: “Your grandmother should be able to recognize you if you hear playing on the radio”
Who would you like to play with and who would you like to play?
Well ‘we say that one thing are my dreams, another thing are real possibilities. I think the biggest dream (obviously impossible) would be to be able to play with Ornette (with which, however, share the day of birth, but with 34 years of difference). His music was a revelation to me. In terms of real possibilities I don’t deny that I would like to reopen the collaboration with Steven Bernstein. Every time we played together we create very interesting new pages. Then there’s Marc Ribot. It has been discussed several times, but so far it has never happened. A great hit for me it would be to be stably inserted in a project of some big name of the European Jazz. That certainly would help my career, giving me probably greater serenity. But these gigs are very closed and their dynamics are incomprehensible to me. I think that quality and originality, though customarily erected asbanner by many artists, are not in fact the discriminating factors …
What are your next projects?
I continue to improve my solo set. This summer I will play in Time In Jazz with a performance linked to the flight. I’m devising a series of sound strategies specifically for the commission received by Paolo Fresu. Then there’s the fantastic combination with Massimiliano Milesi, which proceeds at full speed and that somehow created the ambitious project processing Davis musical aesthetics of the 70s, led by the band Molester Smiles. During the year, however, will produce (hopefully) three cds recorded precisely in duo with Milesi. Then there is the recent collaboration with Francesco Cusa, and I promise you will enjoy yourself a lot!