Interview and Soundpage with Henry Kaiser & Bill Frisell
"Truth or Consequences"
By Dan Forte
Truth Or Consequences
Ibanez SDR1000 Demo
It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely duo than Bill Frisell and Henry Kaiser. Frisell, the lyrical ECM Records guitarist, is shy and somewhat withdrawn, while avant-garde specialist Kaiser seems to be always in high gear, his boyish enthusiasm sometimes causing him to literally leave the ground.
But musically, the two couldn’t be more compatible, complementary, and supportive. They also share a rather twisted musical sense of humor, as evidenced by this month’s Soundpage. "Truth Or Consequences" was composed and performed by the pair upon their first meeting, shortly after their first public performance together at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. It was executed on Kaiser’s Synclavier at his studio. "We started at about 6:00 one evening," relates Henry, "and finished around 4:00 in the morning. This piece was basically done in four sections directly into the Synclavier’s memory recorder, and they were dumped to multi-track tape, mixed, re-EQed, balanced, reverbed, and edited together." The two are scheduled to record an album for ECM this summer, which will also utilize the Synclavier.
Bill Frisell, 35, was featured in the April ’85 Guitar Player. In addition to recording with such artists as Paul Motian, Eberhard Weber, Bob Moses, and Jan Garbarek, he has released two solo outings, In Line [ECM, 1241] and Rambler [ECM, 1287]. The latter features his work on Roland guitar synthesizer, as does bassist Marc Johnson’s recent effort, Bass Desires [ECM, 1299], on which Frisell plays in tandem with guitarist John Scofield. He also appears on pianist Lyle Mays’ self-titled debut [Geffen, GH5-24097]. A one-time student of Jim Hall, he is currently setting the stage for some duo gigs with the jazz master.
Kaiser’s exotic Essential Listening article appeared in the December ’84 Guitar Player. The 33-year-old has been on more than 40 LPs, and his most recent solo release is Marrying For Money [Minor Music (Germany; dist. by Polydor Special Imports), 1010]. He also recently began a new duet LP with Fred Frith, provided sound effects on the upcoming New Santana Band album, and composed several soundtracks for KABC-TV in Los Angeles; he continues to perform Korean/experimental fusion with his trio Invite The Spirit, and is an occasional member of the Golden Palominos. In February he appeared at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival with bassist Andy West and drummer/vocalist Michael Maksymenko, and with the addition of drummer/guitarist John French, the new quartet will be touring California and Japan this summer.
How did you two meet and record his month’s Soundpage?
Kaiser: I had never heard Bill Frisell on record; in fact, I had him confused with a different guitarist who I didn’t care for. Then I read his interview in Guitar Player and realized he wasn’t that guy, so I bought his album Rambler and thought he was doing the best guitar synthesizer stuff I’d ever heard with a Roland. He was being expressive with it; it was like the instrument was invisible and he was expressing himself. It really spoke to me. So 1 wrote to him, and it turned out he knew and liked my stuff, too. We decided to do a record together and, amazingly enough, Bill got [president] Manfred Eicher at ECM interested in the idea. Bill came out here to do a gig with me, and we spent four or five days making demos, as well as "Truth Or Consequences."
Frisell: We got along really well. I already had some of Henry’s records, but we’d never met until 1 went to his studio. We’re coming from very different places - our backgrounds are really different - but somehow we ended up with a lot of common ground, so it was comfortable and easy for us to work together.
Kaiser: I must say that working with Bill is really exciting because he’s one of the most supportive musicians I’ve ever played with Whatever I did in concert, he could make it sound good. Everything we did seemed to complement each other. There aren’t man’ musicians I can hold a conversation with both verbally and musically - Frisell is one of the very few - I’d love to make a record with him in the tradition of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant - hinted at by the end of this Soundpage piece [laughs).
In the "alto sax "section of "Truth Or Consequences," did you purposely make it sound weird by playing out of the sax range?
Frisell: It’s hard to purposely make it glitch. There are a couple of spots where it glitched on the saxophone sound, and the note went real high or real low - it wasn’t what I played - but I liked it actually better than what I was trying to play. But there’s no way I could get that to happen again.
By sampling more notes from an alto sax, could you have made it sound more conventional, more "sax-like"?
Kaiser: Sure. Or I could have taken the same sequence that was in the memory recorder of the Synclavier after we played it, and cleaned it up-taken out those bad notes, changed the samples for different notes. One of the nice things about the Synclavier or any of these computer music systems is that you can record something with one timbre, alto saxophone, and change the sound to frog croaks or violins without having to re-record it. It’s not easy to do in many cases, but with some work and time you can do it. There is a lot of work involved; it’s not like, "Get a slide! It’s so easy, you can play like Ry Cooder tomorrow." There are a lot of techniques that have to be learned, and a lot of intelligent creativity has to go along with it.
Does the Synclavier’s guitar interface track very well?
Kaiser: No, it doesn’t, really. It tracks better than the Roland’s, but it does glitch. Sometimes it’ll play two notes instead of one or a note an octave off, and sometimes it won’t pick up a note. The computer interface is completely different than the Roland’s --- it’s faster, but still not fast enough. Of course, since it’s a pitch-detection system, there is some delay while the computer figures out what note you’re playing. This delay is especially noticeable on the low notes of the sixth string. None of the guitar controllers on the market that I’ve played track well enough for guitarists to play comfortably without having to think really hard about it. It’s useful as an expressive tool. I’m not a keyboard player - I hate the keyboard and love the guitar. But the guitar controller doesn’t really make it. In some of our solos we would intentionally let it glitch, and use those glitches as musical devices.
Frisell: For me, the Roland GR-300 is still the closest to responding like a guitar. The GR-700 takes a lot of getting used to there’s a lot more delay - and it doesn’t respond quite as accurately to what you do with your fingers. I was starting to get used to the 700 when I went to Henry’s and used the Synclavier, and it felt similar to that. Also, depending on what sounds you use - there’s such a huge variety of sounds on the Synclavier - certain ones track a lot better than others.
Can you intentionally make it glitch, rather than just allowing it to glitch randomly?
Kaiser: You can play sloppy sure, it will glitch. If you’re not picking very cleanly and not articulating perfectly with your fingers, it will glitch. But you can see John McLaughlin play the Synclavier, and he can get a kind of triggering out of it that’s way above everybody else - because McLaughlin has spent so many years practicing his picking technique to the point that it’s really beyond 99.99% of the players in the world. With the Synclavier, you really have to be "Mc Laughlin articulate"; you can’t be, say, "Coryell articulate." And you can’t be hammering on like Allan Holdsworth; you have to be picking those notes.
Frisell: You just have to be real careful and attack each note sort of in the same way and very cleanly. Which is different from the way I play on regular guitar, where I try to get a lot of dynamics, hitting some notes real hard and others real soft, bending and scraping. You have to find a consistent way to attack it.
Do you ever just opt to use the keyboard controller instead?
Kaiser: In the work I’ve been doing - largely a lot of soundtrack work for TV shows - I’ve done it all with the keyboard. The guitar interface is not very good; I just have it to reward myself at the end of the day, and I can use it for some expressive types of things and more experimental projects. I intend to use it on the project with Bill for ECM and some other things, but as far as using it for things to make money, things that you have to do in a certain amount of time, it’s faster to use the keyboard, even if you don’t know how to play one.
Frisell: I don’t play keyboard either, but for me the guitar has the capability of being more expressive. It depends on who the guitarist is, of course, but the closer you get to being able to transfer whatever’s happening with the strings vibrating and your hands rubbing on the neck and all that, there’s just more going on there than when you push down on a key. A keyboardist can push down on a key and manipulate that in some way - it also depends on the keyboardist - but there’s something about the guitar that makes it a little more human almost. Even the glitching and stuff.
When the tempo speeds up towards the end of the song, did you just program that in?
Kaiser: We just sped up the tempo on the Synclavier with a dial, manually. But the real guitars were overdubbed, so we listened and played along with the speeding-up track and just played faster and faster. The guitars aren’t manipulated. That’s why you have Bill Frisell playing the last break, because he can play faster than I can [laughs].
Even though most of the Soundpage was done using samples, it still sounds "synth "in parts for instance, the trombone sample doesn’t really sound like an actual trombone. Was that the intent?
Kaiser: Well, on this we were using the factory, stock samples, which are lousy - they don’t sound that great. But some of the newer samples that I’ve made myself sound terrific. It really is a super-high-fidelity sampling system. I’d just gotten the system shortly before we recorded ’this, and I was still learning to use it. But in terms of timbres, what interests me is making up new timbres that sound as rich and as colorful and as powerful as traditional acoustic instrument timbres but are ones no one has heard before. I don’t mean like, "Oh, there’s a new synthesizer timbre"; I mean something that sounds like some strange new instrument - with power and richness and detail - that you’ve never heard before. To me, that’s what’s interesting about sampling - that you can do that - and that’s what I’ve been working with lately. You can play a horn sample so that it sounds close enough to make money on TV shows, which I’ve also been doing. But unless you have Synclaviers much bigger than mine - with more sampling memory, so that you could access larger samples from the keyboard - it doesn’t work well enough to do giant motion picture soundtracks.
Frisell: You can do that - play a line that sounds like a flute or a trumpet - but I like to mess with it a little bit. What I use the guitar synth for most is, I guess, extending the range of the guitar. I mean, I can have it tuned real high or real low. I use it sort of like a Harmonizer. But until this project, I had been using synthesized, instead of sampled, sounds.
Did the sampling capability expand your creativity?
Frisell: Yes. For me, it was just amazing! And there’s so much you can do with it after you’ve played the guitar. That’s really just frightening. You can play a couple of notes and spend a year just developing these small bits of material. It’s a great composing tool. Henry, you’ve always gotten a lot of strange new timbres by using the MXR Pitch Transposer, the Zeta Fuzz, the Lexicon Super Prime Time, and other devices.
Kaiser: Yes, and gotten very rich, complex, natural sounds - which you can’t really do so easily with synthesis. That’s why I stay away from synthesizers. But since I have the sampling in the Synclavier, I think I will eventually get some interesting things with samples. Some people have already gotten some great new sounds using samples, but not on commercial records - not on the Pat Metheny or John McLaughlin or AI Di Meola records. People like Denny Jaeger - who’s the genius of the Synclavier, the genius of working with samples of anybody in the world - have accomplished that on film scores and TV commercials. And I recently stopped by Zappa’s house, and he’s doing the most exciting and innovative work that I know of with the Synclavier.
So how do you turn a sample into some other unknown sound?
Kaiser: You superimpose different samples; you play things out of range; you do something like a marimba attack with a piano decay; you can digitally filter one instrument through the other - to get everything that’s in a violin that’s not in an English horn, or vice versa. A visual analogy would be, the way an artist makes up interesting colors and textures with paints.
Frisell: Another thing that interests me is combining the two using the synthesizer, but still using the guitar sound in there, with the two sounds sort of rubbing against each other. You end up with something you couldn’t really duplicate on the keyboard. I like sounds that you can’t quite explain.
On "Truth Or Consequences" you used synthesized sounds and also samples of synthesizers.
Kaiser: Yes, we did a couple of things to kind of make a didactic point. The bass line behind the trombone solo is a sample of a [Roland] Jupiter synthesizer. The Synclavier gives me a lot of control over samples, so I can take that synthesizer sound and manipulate it both timbrally and temporally. It’s just a fun thing to do: to use a digital sample of a cheaper analog synth sound. Very early on in the piece there’s a strange sound that’s a mixture of an English horn and a guitar. Well, the Synclavier does something called resynthesis, whereby its computer takes a look at a sample and tells the FM synthesis oscillators how to imitate that sample through synthesis - and it can give a very different sound than the sample. With this resynthesis technique you can begin to approach the complexities of natural sounds via synthesis.
What do you see as the advantages of this technology?
Kaiser: The fact that I have a recording device where I can play something slow and then speed it up without changing the pitch of the notes opens a whole new dimension. The part that sounds like a piano solo here was done at a much slower speed on guitar; in fact, it was done in three separate passes, three overdubs.
You mean three overdubs sandwiched on top of each other, not laid end to end?
Kaiser: Right - and then sped up [laughs]. See, I couldn’t have played that on guitar in real time. That, to me, is tremendous power -to make interesting music that nobody could have played. In terms of a "keyboard" performance, it’s something nobody could have played on keyboard, because of the rhythms and the number of notes played at the same time.
So [composer] Conlon Nancarrow could use a Synclavier instead of punching out humanly impossible music on his player piano rolls.
Kaiser: Well, I’d argue with that, because for his purposes this sounds much worse than his player pianos. And, oddly enough, he has more precise control of time; with his method of punching rolls, he can slice time up into much finer divisions than the Synclavier’s clock rate can. Another advantage of the computer technology, though, is that it’s great to be able to hear things instantly, to not have to wait for tape to rewind. It makes for much closer interaction with the muse, so to speak. She’s there in your arms; you’re not just talking to her on the telephone. That’s what really excites me about working with computer-controlled devices in the studio.
In terms of tracking and making convincing sounds, do you have to learn to phrase like other instruments?
Frisell: Well, a lot of why I play the way I do - just on straight guitar -- maybe comes from trying to play like a saxophone or a trumpet or whatever. But one of the things that interested me on the Synclavier was going against that instrument’s phrasing. Like, using a sax or a trombone sound, and then playing very much unlike that instrument - so it sounded like an instrument you’d never heard. So you could be playing a single line with a saxophone sample and all of a sudden play two notes at the same time and bend them or do a typical blues guitar sort of lick. It has that breath in it - it still sounds like somebody’s blowing through a horn - but it takes it out.
Kaiser: That’s a very complicated question. A flute player, for instance, has all different kinds of attacks, and you don’t have all different kinds of attacks with samples -they all have the same attack, unless you have different samples. You can’t really phrase like a flute player or a violinist. You can find one way to phrase that might sound somewhat like a flute, but that has nothing to do with tracking - that’s for making it sound like a flute. Tracking is just cleanliness and evenness of picking. But I don’t think it should necessarily sound like a traditional flute. The "piano" break on this record is a good example: It sounds sort of like a piano, but it’s nothing like piano phrasing. If you want to do a trumpet imitation of Herb Alpert playing "Tijuana Taxi, "you’ve got to have several different kinds of attacks in your samples that sound like his attacks, and punch those in on different tracks perhaps, and you have to learn to bend notes and play in the range of a trumpet. But generally, you don’t have to phrase exactly like a trumpet to have most people think it’s a trumpet and bring about the emotional response that you want from, "Oh, there’s a trumpet." Something 1 have always tried to do in my more experimental guitar work is play with other kinds of phrasing than guitar phrasing. So it’s relatively easy for me to not play "guitar" kinds of licks all the time.
But don’t you have to phrase like, say, a flute when playing a flute sample to get the guitar controller to track right?
Kaiser: No, the tracking is simply a matter of how cleanly you pick. [Ed. Note: When using samples with slow attacks, such as strings, it s possible to pick a guitar controller faster than the Synclavier can regenerate that sample; thus, some notes will be missed, and the Synclavier will glitch.] But if you’re not fingering cleanly, if you’re making noise with your pick, if you’re playing on the lower strings - none of these that are pitch-to-voltage can play on the sixth string, the lower pitches, very well. It takes too long to detect the movement of the string before the computer can decide which note is being played. In my avant-garde style I’ve always been concerned with timbre, how my pick meets the string, the different attacks of blues players versus southeast Asian players. If I think about it, I know exactly how I’m picking, and I don’t just have two or three ways of picking.
What would it take to make a guitar controller that works so that you wouldn’t have to use the keyboard instead?
Kaiser: Well, I believe that there’s no way to make a pitch-to-voltage guitar interface that tracks in real time. As long as you’ve got magnetic pickups or piezo pickups looking at the strings, the computer is going to have to wait several Hertz to figure out what notes are happening on the lower strings, and there will always be a delay. That’s obviously why the SynthAxe and the other systems use fret-switching or fret-detection, which is virtually instantaneous.
Why didn’t you get a SynthAxe?
Kaiser: Because I am a guitar player - it’s not a guitar. To me, it’s really crucial to be able to feel with my left hand that string move when I pick it with my right hand. Otherwise, I might as well play a keyboard. Also, the guitar controller I use with my Synclavier is a Modulus Graphite custom built controller that they make for anybody - you can use it with a Roland or a Synclavier - and in my experience, it works much, much better than the stock Roland controllers. I think it’s night-and-day better. It’s the same Roland electronics stuck in a different body, but it’s the way the guitar physically behaves and vibrates. We had Bill’s Roland guitar when we recorded this we tried them both - but we ended up using the Modulus Graphite. We probably would not have been able to do a lot of this with the Roland. Another thing is that the MIDI standard has to be changed so that guitar players can do what they want. The way MIDI language is written now, you can’t do slurs - it reads it as two attacks - and you can’t do polyphonic bending, no pedal steel licks, period. It would be no problem to change the MIDI language, and that’s really crucial.
EQUIPMENT USED ON "TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES"
Synclavier with 10Mb Winchester hard disk drive, 4Mb internal sampling RAM, VT keyboard, guitar interface, Kennedy tape drive, and Pericom monitor terminal
Akai MG1212 12-track Mixer/recorder.
Lexicon Model 200 digital reverb.
Howard Durable tube preamp.
1950s Fender Stratocaster modified with Floyd Rose tremolo and Alembic pickups.