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Andrew Cyrille: Art Science, Part 2

Part two of extensive interview with renowned drummer

Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille album cover

Andrew Cyrille is one of the key figures involved in the expansion of the musical tradition and innovation of composition. He helped usher the “once” vocabulary into the “now” vernacular of the language of “jazz” and drumming. He has significantly contributed to the evolution of art. Mr. Cyrille’s experiences run the gambit of marches, two-feels, gospel, bebop, Philly Joes and Cecil Taylors on down to dances and synthesized improvisation. At a soon to be age 73, he has performed-and continues to perform-with a host of musicians across the world documenting, assimilating and communicating the factors of his existence and environment through sound. The culmination relates sound as historically valuable in the evidence and celebration of the human experience. This interview is an attempt to look at Mr. Cyrille’s ideas about composition, improvisation and the current and future state of art. It will be released in two installments. Part one dealt mainly with Cyrille’s experiences and the development of his playing style. Part two digs into the concepts which inform, affect and shape his playing and musical sensibilities.

Dominic Fragman: Is it something that you were conscious of, not the process of learning, but the ways you were thinking of how you might change the approach to the instrument?

Andrew Cyrille: Well, you know it’s not so much about how do I change the approach to the instrument, it’s about how do I change me in regard to the approach to the instrument. You know, when I started working with Cecil Taylor, I had to begin thinking about how I was going to play that music in a way that had to do with the tradition but also had to do with the contemporary way that we were playing rhythm and “meter” if you want to use that term. It wasn’t really metrical in the traditional sense by counting 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4-5 1-2-3-4 over and over. It was another way of thinking about playing sound and having a conversation or communicating with each other from the initial introduction of one rhythm and melody to the end of it. Like having a verbal speaking conversation.

To the natural cadence of a phrase instead of forcing a cadence into bar lines.

Yeah, it was at the structure. You know all of that stuff is good. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with having, so to speak, “analog time” where you count 1-2-3. There’s a lot of beautiful music that has been made with that stuff and I still use that in a lot of stuff I do. Not everything, but a lot of stuff. Like with Trio 3 with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. We do a lot of stuff metrically and a-metrically.

Right, and even while you were doing what you were doing with Cecil and Jimmy [Lyons], you did Burnt Offering, which floated around on both ends.

Exactly. See, so what I did there, Jimmy was coming out of Charlie Parker. He sounds almost exactly like Charlie Parker in tone. And I was coming out of Max and Roy Haynes and what all those guys had done with Bird too, see because I was really into to all that.

You weren’t leaving the tradition; you were exploring and expanding it. That’s what you are stressing about the learning process and achieving your own voice. Not that you were just all of the sudden able to do these things and they were-or you conceptualized it to be-something completely different from what anybody else had ever done.

Maybe so, it’s not for me to say that I did that. I will say this to you, when I made the recording Pieces Of Time, with Kenny Clarke, Milford Graves and Famoudou Don Moye, everybody brought a composition to the recording. That’s why we have those different feels. It deals with all of our individual “traditions.” Klook basically brought a bebop composition that was AABA. You see, 32 bars. It was a dedication to his son, Laurent. And you know where Klook was coming from. He was coming from Bird and Dizzy and all those cats so that’s how he thought. And that stuff was magnificent, some magnificent music. And of course Moye did something he called it “Nibaldi Isle.” It was almost like a music of tones that would take you to a certain avenue or place. Some kind of place like Polynesia and/or Indonesia because it had all these bells and stuff going on. And, Milford did something that he called “Babi (heart beat) Music” which has to do with how he feels about the beating heart. He is into the body and acupuncture and all of those things that have to do with health and the body. So, a lot of what he had thought about and conceptualized came from the fact that he was dealing with the human body as well as the spirit. Milford had also studied Indian drumming and timbales so that was in a lot of what he was playing or how he played. All of that comes into focus when you hear him playing on the trap set. Then, I introduced a piece I called “Drum Song For Leadbelly.” I had gotten it together, more or less an adaptation, from this song I’d heard Texas blues guitar player, Huddie Leadbetter sing. I kind of adapted it, shaped it, for the recording. All of us also did solos, “Personal Statements.” We did two minute excerpts of our musical and drum personalities. So, all of that came together.

So these things like with “Babi Music” or whatever things that influence the way you play from what you think “outside” of a musical standpoint-If you can say that-and . . .

Let me help you so you don’t have to necessarily guess: The other piece that I did on that recording was called “Number Eleven.” That piece had to do with the fact that I was born in the 11th month, November. So what I did was, to have a nucleus, a motif of eleven, eleven sounds. And I could play them any way I wanted but it would be eleven sounds orchestrated with eleven attacks. So, that each time you hit it’s like an attack, there’s a separation, the beginning of the sound and it stops. It seems sort of hard to use that word “attack” positively, but we know what we mean in music anyway. So what I’m saying to you, is all art, and if we think about this for a minute, is art imitating life or is life imitating art? It has to be influenced by something. When writers write, they write about how life is or how life could, should or would be from their perspective.

What other concepts inform your music? Do you draw a connection between the universe and the human condition when you’re playing?

Well, number one, I can’t get away from where I am in the moment. In other words, I’m not having an out of body experience. So, yes the universe influences what I do mentally and spiritually but it’s in the now-like I’m talking to you. I could be playing a drum solo and talking to you, but what am I thinking about? I’m thinking about what I’m doing at the moment and what I’m saying to you, what I want to say, how I’m going to say it, does it fit the moment, is it in the moment? I don’t want to be involved in something that doesn’t have anything to do with my rational consciousness. If I did that, then I would, in a sense, be crazy. That’d be like me talking to you now, and you ask me a question about how do I think about playing a double stroke roll and I start talking about strawberries. You know what I mean? You would say, “Wait a minute!”

I think the answer to the question you have is in the science of the art. There is a lot of science in the art of music. For example, I know that if I play a march, people are going to think about marching. If I play a mambo rhythm, they’re going to think about something latin. If I play a bossa nova, they’re going to think about Brazil, maybe. If I play a waltz, they’re going to think about “DAH-DUH-DA-DEE-DOO-DA-DOO-DOO-DEEE-DA, 123, 123 123,” etc. So they get the feeling. That’s the science of the art of music in that light, because it’s been tried, true, and tested. And we know that when we produce certain things in a certain way we’re going to get a certain reaction. Like when you take medicine. Doctors know they’re going to get certain results by giving you a certain kind of medication. They know what happens from certain kinds of surgery. It doesn’t work all the time. There’s nothing that’s absolutely perfect. But most of the time it works.

As a researcher and developer of music and the body and soul, what is your goal in that regard?

To be able to communicate effectively to the other people who have bodies and souls and have them know that they are experiencing something which is generally coming from my body and my soul. You see, that’s what it is. Like when I was playing the other night at the Interpretations concert at Roulette on Oct. 13, 2011, with Richard [Teitelbaum] and Elliot [Sharp], I was listening to this stuff and to some degree I can’t tell you that I had never heard anything like that before. There is nothing that we as human beings can conceive of that has not been heard or does not come from some place. So you get the synthesizer and that sounded to me, like what might be heard in outer-space. And maybe some of those sounds were recorded by some of the satellites they send out to explore space. I’m sure it’s not only photographs they take but they also gather sounds. And the sound comes back to earth and we have some idea of what it might sound like out there. I’m sure it’s not totally silent. It couldn’t be.

So, listening to what Richard was doing and what Elliot was doing it reminded me of some of the stuff I hear like with Star Trek or Star Wars. You know what, there was that movie, Close Encounters Of the Third Kind. The great thing about that movie was the conclusion when they finally saw the spaceship. The question was how do we get those people to dock and open the doors. And the very simple solution was to play “DAH-DEE-DAH-DOO-DAY.” 5 notes, and then the whole thing opened up. So, I guess that’s an anthropomorphic kind of situation so to speak, and by that I mean, we as human beings humanize things that we want to think could be humanized. So we (the movie directors) made five sounds that we’re familiar with and then the space ship doors opened.

All these various creatures, well, we’re creatures, too, but all these other kinds creatures came out happily and it was a big glorious ending. Lights going off and music being played and everybody is smiling and all this stuff over 5 notes. So, hey. I did a recording with clarinetist, John Carter’s composition called “Encounter,” and we played those 5 notes as a theme. I also did another recording of the same tune with Trio 3, Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. We improvised on those themes. So, what am I saying? I’m saying that with electronic guitar player, Elliott Sharp and synthesizer player, Richard Teitelbaum playing and listening to the music we made at a recent concert, I have to find something on the drums that to me relates to my experiences as a human being. What I imagine it could be like in inner or outer electronic-space by playing acoustic drums.

And what would you say is important about that for you?

The fact that I’m surviving as a human being amidst all that stuff. I haven’t become that. I’m still looking at it objectively and therefore, having a subjective experience. But it’s all objective in a way that perhaps I can communicate to some other folks about what it is I’m feeling and experiencing. Because, you know, all art has a purpose very often, of giving a vicarious experience, you understand what I mean? That’s why people who have “nine to five” jobs, appreciate certain kinds of music because it liberates them from what they’ve been doing from one moment to another. So they go to the television, they look at a movie, they listen to music, they read a book. They want another human experience. But somebody has to bring that to them and it’s usually the artist. So they get through to that other side of life, the spiritual side of life that you can’t really pocket, or eat, or wash your face with but you can feel and think certain things about internally. You see, with music, we can make people feel terrified, we can make them feel horrified, we can make them laugh, we can make them sad or happy. And what is all that about? We know to some degree, but we don’t know exactly how, because it has to do with the brain and the fact that we’re human. Artists communicate that to the people who don’t do that but who need to experience it. That’s why it continues to exist. Of course we go to those other people who keep our bodies together and keep us together in this dimension. It all works. One hand washes the other, so to speak. So that’s what it means. And then again, too, with me doing some things like playing with Richard and Elliott and folks like that, it allows me to explore the drum set in different ways. I find different ways to do different things that I can hear, different places that I can go. And it gives me techniques, it shows me techniques. I mean technique is nothing but how do you do something. So I say, Ok, I’m going to try this now. I’m going to go here and do this to get that kind of music.

What kind of spiritual implications do those types of expressions and expansions have for you?

Well, number one, it goes from an implication to an inference and that has to do with its implied adventure. So, as I imply that perhaps I’m going to be involved in something adventurous, when I get into the adventure then it’s an inference, hey, I’m here! Like climbing a mountain and on either side you don’t have guard rails. You look at the mountain and imply, well if I do that, then this might happen. Well let me try. Once you get in it, you know that you’re in it and if you want to do one thing or another, you know it’s your butt, plus or minus! That’s the physical part of it but I guess it could be the same thing spiritually. You know, when I decide I’m going to do something, yeah, I’ll go for it. I’ll go for the adventure. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes when I hear myself play some things in certain situations with an ensemble I listen back to it and say, man I could have done something else there. That didn’t quite work. Or that was great! It’s just a matter of life. Life sometimes can be positive and sometimes it can be negative. Based on choices made on things that we can control, it can slide backwards or forwards. The result of those choices we’ve made then have to be lived with.

Is that what you would dub as improvisation?

Well, in a sense that is what it becomes. But, the definition for improvisation to me is composing, organizing, varying and performing simultaneously. So, after all of that is done, what does it equal? In the context of the kind of music that we’re now talking about, it comes down to improvisation. It’s about doing something heard in the moment based on what we’re thinking and all of its supporting thoughts. Like talking, conversing or giving speeches, varying what we want to say to make our point, and doing it in the moment. Afterwards, sometimes, when we have a chance to listen back to what we said (played), we say to ourselves that was said (played) well, or I wish I would have said (played) that better or differently.

What is your “head space” when you are doing these things? What kind of focus is involved in improvising for you?

Well I’m just being focused on what I’m doing in the context of where I am. In other words, what I’m saying to you is I can’t have an out of body experience where there’s another Andrew Cyrille that’s watching me, Andrew Cyrille do something. I don’t know how to do that. Maybe if I could do that, that would be a great situation and I could be like a puppeteer. You know what I mean? I’m not a puppet in these situations. I might be influenced by my surroundings while I’m there, like playing “The Decline and Fall Of the World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.” When I’m there that’s what I’m doing.

How do you conceptualize composition and music theory and the like?

Well, what is theory? Theory is what’s to be proved, that’s what the word theory means. So, you learn music theory in order to get some place that you think you want to go. Theory helps you prove what you feel. I mean there’s a theory about playing blues. There are certain chords that you play and certain rhythms. And then we use those theories to help us find something that is concrete. And then people feel a certain thing. So I don’t have anything against music theory. Of course there are basic rules of theory. A lot of people have theories that they come up with based on things that they have learned. Like scientists looking to find out what can be learned from “X.” There’s stuff now that they’re talking about that has to do with singularity. It deals with artificial Intelligence. Some people are saying that in 40 or 50 years the exponential growth of computer intelligence will make the human brain obsolete. In other words, we can’t think as fast as the computer. So, with the way that stuff is going now-if it happens-it will be in a relatively short time. So there will be things governing us on terms that won’t necessarily be as important as they are now. See, that’s theoretical. Now, what that has to do with art, I don’t know. Because I don’t know if any artificial intelligence really could have human feelings that relate to flesh, blood, body and soul.

Do you think something like that could be bad for art, as far as people’s thinking changing and there no longer being interest?

You mean the people that make it?

Not the makers, but the audience?

Well, could be. But I don’t know of a computer, and maybe down the line they might have one, that can say hey, I’m sorry or I love you, or let’s go out to dinner or something like that. You see, I don’t know what it all means. And we see all of these video cameras that are on the streets now and somebody does something, if they pass a light they have a camera that takes your info. So, how do people relate to that in terms of what’s around them because that’s what artists do. They just document in a medium what’s going on. So that becomes like a documentation of their presence. And to a large degree recordings came about in the last part of the 19th century so we have some sound of what people were doing then, those who were able to be recorded. But if we could have recorded some stuff 5000 years ago concerning what people were doing, we could understand everything about their history. In the future, if people are still basically made out of the same ingredients we are today, I’m sure there will be a need for art as we know it. They’ll see!

I’ve heard you talk about this in an interview you did at the Guelph, visualizing the history of a civilization or culture through music.

Right, through the sounds they make. And that’s we do.

So is that what composition is about for you?

Yes. And we use techniques in order to get to the concepts, in order to get to what we know to be the feeling. Now I don’t know what everybody in that audience was feeling when they heard Richard playing the synthesizer and Elliott on the guitar playing all of those sounds at the Roulette concert, but I liked what I was playing and related to what was happening around me with good feelings. To me, listening back to what I taped, it was a cerebral experience and it moved me emotionally. But, it didn’t make me feel how I would feel if I had gone to a church and listened to Rev. James Cleveland sing gospel. Or maybe Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess play one of those tunes like “All the Things You Are” something like that, or whatever it is that they want to play. With that bebop beat. I love that stuff. Or if I listened to a piece by Beethoven or something by Chopin. It’s beautiful music when I listen to what those guys play and how it’s played. I mean it’s a certain amount of information. It comes from different places and it affects different parts of the body. I can’t say that it doesn’t affect me on some kind of physical, visceral and spiritual level.

What do you feel like you’re saying about the current social and cultural situation? What are you indicating?

Well all I can say is that whatever is here and however it is I feel about the sounds that are being made around me, is what I am. What I see on another social level, is an amalgamation of cultures, musical cultures that come together. What’s going to happen eventually, I don’t know. How can I know? But I have played with musicians from Africa. I’ve played with Korean musicians. I’ve gone to Japan and played with Japanese musicians. I’ve played with European musicians. I’ve played with Indian musicians-still me being centered, Andrew, but relating to them and them relating to me, which is what we have in common as human beings. So on a social level, I think there’s a lot of good that comes out of it. I was in Israel in 1987, and played together in a session combining Israeli, Arab and a musician from India. We all played together. We came together and it wasn’t a tower of babble. After a brief backstage conference about how we would make our musical collaboration, we came out, presented and performed the music that we felt and heard from our individual musical perspectives. It worked and was received well by the audience. I think music is a celebration of life. All of us were brought together by music to celebrate our lives individually and collectively, and be happy that we were part of the party and celebration that was then going on.

That’s a good way of looking at it with the things you’ve said about composition, improvising, art and how these things are all life and how you’ve assimilated it into sound.

Right. Which is what I specialize in. So I don’t know what else I can say. I’m thankful and grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given. And I just know that the bad parts of feeling are not going to be around forever, it passes. It always does. Life goes up and down in terms of how we experience and think about what’s going on. We get sick and often enough we get well. Sometimes we don’t, but that’s what this life is and that would be the ultimate experience, the exit. And all of us have to deal with that just like we dealt with the entrance and what’s in between.

Read Part one of this interview at

Originally Published