No Note Wasted: Tyler Damon And Tashi Dorji Interviewed
, November 15th, 2016 14:24
Following the release of their new LP Both Will Escape, Tyler Damon and Tashi Dorji talk with Elizabeth Newton about contemporary currents of free improvisation, resistance to dogma, and finding inspiration in unexpected places
Both Will Escape, the new LP from American musicians Tyler Damon and Tashi Dorji, enters into a long history of free improvisation duets, which extends back to such seminal collaborations as John Coltrane’s work with drummer Rashied Ali in the ‘60s. The simplicity of two musicians playing off each other opens up many creative possibilities. In particular, drums and guitar seem well-suited to each other — from Bill Orcutt with Adris Hoyos to Han Bennink with Derek Bailey, there is something compelling about that combination.
Enter Damon and Dorji, a dynamic duet of percussion and electric guitar. On Both Will Escape, they combine to create a visceral, mysterious, and surprising set of improvisation that maxes out the recording’s mix. Damon burns across his drum kit like a wildfire, firing timbres from a slew of raw materials and harnessing their energies into beats. At times, he pares the texture down, tending to cymbal whispers with his brushes. Dorji’s guitar tones similarly range from meditative to ecstatic, as he works minimalist ostinatos into coarse masses of noise. The result is an ideal sonic accompaniment to autumn’s vibrant colour scheme.
Before taking off on a tour around the United States, the duo sat down to discuss their work together. Damon is based in Bloomington, Indiana, and Dorji in Asheville, North Carolina, but they travel regularly to perform together and make their art.
Damon explained how this collaboration began. “I was aware of Tashi’s music already,” he said. “It was one of my favourite new things I had heard. I was even thinking to myself, ‘I’d really like to play with this guy.’” In 2015, they connected on the internet and then played their first set together at a show in Lexington, Kentucky. It must have worked out, because they repeated the performance the next night in Lafayette, Indiana — a meeting that produced their first recording together, a limited release cassette called Live at the Spot +1 .
The two agreed that when they first met, it felt like meeting up with an old friend. When they perform, they rarely need to talk about their practice — instead, the music emerges from a place of mutual admiration and inspiration. Dorji said, “The music is not written but there is an intuitive creative process. This process of making this radical music varies and is affected by the context of where we play or whom we play for. It’s in a constant state of becoming or changing. Every show I played with Tyler feels like we have moved, fluxed, hybridised. Tyler’s playing keeps taking me to higher places. It’s like a drug or something.”
The act of recording free improvisation is a contested practice, and artists disagree about how best to capture the energy of a live performance on a track. Some pride themselves in avoiding edits and overdubs, but Damon and Dorji reject this purist stance toward recording. “There are a few edits on the record, and most of that had to do with constraining the music,” said Damon, stressing that they privileged quality over quantity of material. “It’s a matter of cutting two minutes that are more or less meandering. It seems absurd to me to keep an extra two minutes in there that really didn’t serve the music, even if that’s the way it happened, because the process of it is not nearly as important to me as the end result. I just wanted it to be a concise, stronger sort of statement in that way.”
In particular, Damon mentioned a crossfade on the first track of the album’s B side, ‘Gate Left Open’, a decision made by the record’s engineer, John Dawson, with whom Damon has worked for many years. Although some improvisers think production choices like this count as cheating, he resists that kind of ideology. He said, laughing, “I’ve been running from purist sentiments my whole life, so I don't think I need any more of that. I’m going to reject dogma every single time. There’s no place for it.”
Damon continued, “There’s a lot of people that are really concerned with the sort of language you might use to describe this sort of music, and that seems to me sort of secondary — even tertiary — to the final thing, like what you’re actually going to end up hearing.”
Even regarding their own practices, Damon and Dorji are constantly reconsidering their musical perspectives. For example, Damon said, “I used to have this really stupid idea that [studying music theory] would somehow rob me of my personal inspiration, which seems very dumb to me now. I do understand that impulse, but now I’m realising that theory only expands your palette.” Dorji also stressed the value of transformation within his musical practice: “Improvisation to me is an exercise in vulnerability, danger, letting go, and not knowing. I like to think the music I am engaged in is volatile, imperfect, and changing.”
Although the duo welcomed edits on this record to improve the ultimate effect of the music, in live performance, improvisation inevitably involves some misses as well as hits, a reality that Damon finds liberating. He said, “When I first started going to see a lot of improvised music, hearing people I had had huge admiration for, and still do, it made everything more human to me, actually witnessing it. Even the biggest heavyweights of that world have their own meandering moments. It gives you something you can compare to the more brilliant passages that you hear people play. Everybody who is involved in this has some kind of struggle. I don’t like that word — I don’t like to identify with the struggle aspect of it — but everybody is just waking up every day, and their mood is affecting how they perform, as much as it will affect anything they do that day. I don’t have to do it the same way every time, and you don’t have to do the same thing that your improvising partner is doing, you can find your own way. If you’re just present, then you’ll probably just make better music.”
Their music always sounds inspired, but it is nonetheless clearly rooted in strong technique. I asked the duo what their practice looks like. Dorji said, “Practice for me is being on tour and playing live. These live shows are truly a place of finding new ideas for us.” Damon described his approach, saying, “I’m always working on something detail-oriented. Lately I’ve been working a lot on triple strokes and trying to build my left hand and get that feel, so that it’s up to the point where my right hand is. Most of [practicing] is not about spectacle or anything like that for me, or it being an athletic gesture, or about chops. It’s important to be able to do that stuff, but only so you can be more expressive.”
At this point, Damon was reminded of a book he is currently reading, a collection of lectures by and interviews with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, which he had on hand. “I thought this was so poignant, with regards to this subject of practice,” he said, and he asked if he could share a quote that he thought speaks to the significance of gesture in performance. He read it out loud:
"When we cannot count the elements any longer, so this depends on the speed, naturally when the pace is too fast we cannot count them anymore, and thirteen notes may just appear like a gesture. One doesn’t feel like counting them. There are too many events all happening at once, like a swarm of bees. We perceive the swarm as a shape. It becomes a single entity. If we see a tree, we don’t count the leaves, but are still able to tell a pine tree from a Beech. It is an effect of the elements, but there is something else, the shape, the overall form, that characterise its mass."
He explained: “When I read that, I thought, I had considered this idea before, but Stockhausen said it so well. For me this describes the distinction between just being able to do the technique and the actual expression that the group makes together. With another performer, it’s about becoming one entity.”
When I asked the duo about their musical influences, their answers were wide-ranging. “My listening habits are all over the place,” said Damon, who has worked at Landlocked Music — a record shop in Bloomington, Indiana — for about eight years. “There’s not any music on earth, genre-wise, in which I wouldn’t find some artist or song that would appeal to me.” Dorji expressed a similar eclecticism. “I think the influences are many and constantly influx and becoming,” he said. “Sometimes it could be just be a song before a show or a session, a quote, a movie, a gesture. Nothing seems linear.”
Together, they listed a load of artists that move them: the new Junior Boys full-length, Kebyar-style Gamelan record from the Sebatu region of Bali, Directing Hand’s “Songs From The Red House,” the Dino Valente solo LP, Amps For Christ, Ranking Toyan, Bogotá’s Chupame El Dedo and Romperayo, Mark Tester’s “Never Mind” cassette, Sleaford Mods, Catherine Ribeiro et Alpes, Bill Dixon, Mal Waldron, Krallice, Sumac, The Music Improvisation Company, Bollywood songs, Pisaro, Dick Gaughan, 広橋涼 and 大原さやか, Rachmaninoff.
Jazz of any variety might be the most audible influence in their music, which they both discussed. Dorji said: “Live At Half Note: One Down, One Up is one my favorite Coltrane records.” And Damon said, “Lately I’ve really been into this Chicago trio from the ‘70s and ‘80s called Air, which was led by Henry Threadgill with Steve McCall on drums and Fred Hopkins on bass. They do an inside-and-outside vibe. It reads as free jazz, but I think it’s really different. They’re willing to groove sometimes and they lock into repetitions.”
Currently, Damon is especially fascinated by drummer Paul Motian. “There’s so much space in [his playing],” he said. “He definitely makes me feel something. He’s kind of like the Loren Connors of drums. It’s something very expressive and sparse. It’s very considered, or careful, not in a way that holds him back, but in a way that there is no note wasted. It always seems to serve a purpose.”
Regarding earlier influences in his life, Damon mentioned the Paul Flaherty/Chris Corsano duo and the Flower/Corsano duo, which features Corsano with Michael Flower of the Vibracathedral Orchestra. He said, “Those two duos in particular were completely mind-blowing, seeing that stuff years ago, hearing it for the first time. Family Vineyard is a label that changed my life by putting out some of those artists.”
Beyond jazz, metal seems like a strong influence in Damon and Dorji’s performances, which makes sense — one of Damon’s favorite drummers is Dave Lombardo. He said, “I find it totally remarkable that Lombardo is in his fifties now and is playing stadium arena shows with not just Slayer, but other classic thrash bands. He’s probably better than he’s ever been, and while playing this extreme kind of music. It’s inspiring. I was a huge Slayer fan when I was 15. I wore out that early American [Recordings].” Similarly, Dorji noted his own metal influences: “Krallice, Amebix, His Hero Is Gone, Neurosis, Black Sabbath are some of my favourite bands. Tyler and I also love Rage Against The Machine — ‘Killing In The Name’!”
Sometimes, inspiration comes from more unexpected places. Damon said one of his favourite bands is the ‘60s group Poppy Family. He described their sound: “They’re a little bit cornball, very Canadian. It’s psychedelic, like soft-psych, almost an AM radio vibe. They sound like the Carpenters on one song, the Everly Brothers on another. I just love it! Susan Jacks’s voice is really strong.” He added, laughing, “There’s no indication in my musical output that I love that music as much as I do. I guess it’s got to show up somehow.”
They agreed that sometimes the most interesting music isn’t what can be found online — maybe the best way to find new music is to hit the road. When I asked for an example, Damon said, “Tashi and I played a show in Boston in June that took place in abandoned bear cages. It’s kind of a long story. One performer that stood out to me most was Wendy Eisenberg. She was playing awesome improvised banjo. She’s also a guitar player, and she sings as well. I remember Tashi and I both being very impressed, not only by Wendy’s playing, but by the scene that night. It was very strong. I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it online, but they deserve more recognition.”
Dorji enthused about Vicky Mettler, a guitarist in the free jazz and metal quartet Dusk Scored Dark. “Vicky is one of a kind player and I really hope the world gets to hear more of her,” he said, which Damon seconded.
The two spoke about how music scenes today often transcend particular locales. Damon is currently preparing for a trip to Vietnam, where there is a thriving scene of experimental music, which he thinks can be found mostly anywhere today. Damon said, “I feel as though, living in Indiana — and maybe Tashi feels this way, too, about living in North Carolina — that in the age of the internet, the playing field has been levelled. We all have access to this stuff, if you know where to look. People in New York or L.A. or Chicago, they’re still hip, but it’s not like a chasm of hipness between there and small-town Indiana still exists. Everyone is more or less operating on the same level now. It’s very exciting to me to know that things seem to be exploding everywhere. People are inspired and very turned on.”
Of Bloomington, Indiana’s local music scene in particular, Damon said, “Bloomington’s problem has always been way too many people making art, and not enough people to witness it. I think it was in a book by Ian Svenonius called Censorship Now!! where he said that it’s basically punk’s ‘fault’ in the ‘70s for introducing that model, which turns the performers into the audience, like a snake eating its own tail. It becomes insular in a certain way.”
Free improvisation isn’t known for being accessible to a large audience, but Damon closed by saying that he’d like to reach more people with this music: “I don’t want to isolate people, and I don’t think there’s any reason for [this music] to be isolating, or even considered weird. It’s just sound.” He has a point. But after hearing the electric currents on Both Will Escape, many listeners might disagree: this music is not just sound — it’s so much more than that.
Both Will Escape is out now. Tyler Damon and Tashi Dorji will be touring from Oct 31 to Nov 4. Tour dates available here