Late Night City Sonics: An Interview With Peter Zummo

One of Peter Zummo's much-celebrated collaborations with the late Arthur Russell, Zummo With An X, was reissued this year by Optimo Music. Robert Barry caught up with Zummo via email to discuss his own musical history and channeling the sounds of the city

Somewhere in America there exist hours upon hours of tape recordings made by Arthur Russell and Peter Zummo at the Connecticut studios of Bob Blank in the late 80s, in between never-quite-completed sessions for Rough Trade and Philip Glass’s Point label. Without any money to pay for studio time, Russell would write songs for Blank’s wife, Lola, or work for free on projects for their son, Kenny, and Blank would give Russell the keys to this place and just let him get on with whatever it was he wanted to do. The sessions would go on interminably, late into the night, with Zummo blasting chromatic trombone lines through racks of delay units over strange drum machine patterns that kept changing speeds.

No-one seems to be able to remember when Arthur Russell and Peter Zummo first met. "I think we were both in a rehearsal for some kind of big band experiment," Zummo suggests to me via email. "Or we may have crossed paths elsewhere." In his Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams, Tim Lawrence suggests their paths might have crossed at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York where they both performed several times and often hung out, or maybe at one of the contemporary dance events choreographed by Zummo’s wife, Stephanie Woodard, maybe when they both took part in a performance by the Normal Music Band at a bar called Sobossek’s on the Bowery.

But the memory that sticks in Zummo’s mind today is of Arthur "on the street in front of my loft building on 22nd Street, calling up for me, but at first I didn’t hear him because I had headphones on. We got together after that." That was in 1976, over the next decade and a half the pair would work together countless times on many different projects. It’s Zummo’s woozy trombone fanfare that announces the Francois Kevorkian remix of ‘Go Bang’. It plays in chromatic steps in counterpoint to Russell’s cello on the Dinosaur track, ‘Kiss Me Again’. Zummo’s trombone pops up again, slurring and stuttering in syncopation with the surf guitar sound of Sahara by the Necessaries, an art rock band Russell was briefly a member of in the early 80s. It plays in the breakdown on ‘This Is How We Walk On The Moon’, scoring diagonal lines against the pitterpat of electronic hi-hats. And its Arthur’s voice and cello mooning and floating on ‘Song IV’, the final track on Zummo With An X.

From early childhood, Peter Zummo recalls being enchanted by the sound of thunder against the Ohio hills. He grew up in Cleveland, born in 1948 to a piano player father who would accompany singers on the Pete Raye Show, broadcasting on KDKA (AM), the world’s first commercial radio station. His mother was an amateur singer, part of a group called the Mothersingers, a women’s choral group organised through the PTA. "There was no question," he insists "but that I would have music lessons and sing in the church choir. I had good pitch and rhythm so I was pushed forward all the time."

When FM radio came out, Zummo recalls asking to be driven to Sears to buy a $20 Silvertone FM radio, "which drifted and was hard to tune," so that he could listen to jazz. When John Coltrane released A Love Supreme in February 1965, Zummo snapped it up immediately. Around the same time he bought a ticket to see the Miles Davis Sextet without asking his parents for permission.

In the early seventies, between bachelors and masters degrees in music at Wesleyan University (where he studied with none other than John Cage and Alvin Lucier), Zummo joined fusion band, Sunship. "I was packed and ready to go to Utrecht to study at the Institute of Sonology when I met these guys who were starting a jazz-rock band. The idea was that Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears were popular. I had no strong idea of what I was doing." But Sunship gave Zummo an opportunity to break out of the academic ivory tower and learn about arranging for drums and bass, meanwhile developing a burgeoning obsession with sound systems and reverb units. Sunship got a deal with Capitol and Zummo wrote a song for their album called Travelers Through Days And Days on which he played an EMS VC-S3 (affectionately known as "the Putney"), the synth beloved of Delia Derbyshire and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was also in Sunship that Zummo met Rik Albani, later to become a frequent collaborator of both Zummo and Russell in New York.

Arriving in downtown New York in the mid-70s he found himself in the midst of a whorl of creativity. "I listened to more live music than I ever had," he recalls. But more than just the artsy performance spaces of SoHo and Tribeca, it was the streets itself, the atmosphere on the ground that broadened the trombonist’s mind. "There are all kinds of sounds in the city," he insists, "and that backdrop is influential." He credits Arthur Russell with introducing him to the idea of mixing the New Music of the Kitchen with ideas from disco and hip hop. "Also, working with him helped me to become more fluent with using my instrumental technique to create and develop composition. He always told me to write more, that is, to develop ideas more thoroughly."

Zummo was amongst the last people to see Arthur alive, visiting him in the hospital in early 1992. After his death, Zummo and some of Russell’s other friends formed a band called Arthur’s Landing to continue performing Russell’s songs and compositions. He remains concerned that much of the music made by today’s generation of artists under the influence of Arthur and his peers misses the point. "The younger crowd is embracing this music, but lack sufficient information about the aesthetic basis of it (especially as regards performance practice), thus it’s important that we find a way to record and transmit this information. The relevance is that many important ideas and approaches were discovered or made manifest in “the downtown scene,” and these would usefully inform the music, art, and culture of today and tomorrow."

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today