This telephone interview with pianist, composer and bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams was recorded a few days before his 1996 orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center. That performance also marked the world premiere of an Abrams’ commission, Duet for Violin and Piano. Eighteen years later to the day, Muhal returned to the Kennedy Center, where I shot this pic at close of his concert.
Why don’t you tell us about the music you’re playing here this coming week?
Well, each piece is completely different. It’s original music; some older pieces and some newer pieces recently composed, of course.
How often does this orchestra perform?
This particular group hasn’t performed before. It’s a complete new setup.
For the commissioned work for violin and piano, you’ll have Regina Carter and Anthony Davis performing the premiere. Did you consider playing the piano part yourself?
I’d prefer to have someone else play it. I have quite a bit to do so I’ll be concentrating on the orchestra and the things I want to do there.
Did you write the piece with these two players in mind?
No. I never write with players in mind, except for the quality of player. So when I wrote it I didn’t have any specific players in mind, except for good players. And after I wrote it I decided who I wanted to perform it.
Have they rehearsed it yet?
Oh sure. They’ve been in rehearsal for quite a while.
Are there elements of improvisation, or is it strictly composed?
This piece is strictly composed. There’s a possibility there may be elements of improvisation, I have to talk to them about that. But in terms of the composed part, I’m sure they have that well in hand. If there will be any improvisation in that piece, I will allow them to interpret sections for themselves in order to develop any improvisational part.
You’ve been composing for more than 30 years now. Has your approach to it changed over time?
It’s constantly changing [chuckles].
In what way?
Well, it changes because you get different impressions at different times. You’re hearing other people do things, and you’re studying, you know, personal studies. So it’s constantly changing because you’re trying to improve it. And to learn from the environment itself, you know?
Tell me more about your personal studies. Are you studying technique, are you studying yourself or the world itself?
The world itself. Well, a little of all of it, actually. I don’t think you ever stop learning in terms of technical study. And self-study.
Can you give an example of something you’ve studied in the world or with other musicians and how it impacts on your own music or concept?
No, it’s nothing specific. It’s everything. It could be anything that might impress me. It can be any style of music.
At what point did you know that music would be your life?
Hm… [long pause]. I don’t know [laughs]. It just started to happen. I was quite young, of course.
This was in Chicago?
Oh yeah, sure.
Did you know Captain Walter Dyatt?
Sure. I knew him pretty well.
So I want to know more about that time in Chicago in the 50s. Walter Dyatt was there, you were there. Was Sun Ra around at that time?
How involved were you with each other?
We were all on the scene. It was like a neighborhood, so to speak. Everyone knew everyone else and we were aware of everyone’s activities, and whatnot. We would perform in some of the same venues. It was a close community at that time.
You’ve been an important teacher for many musicians. Who were your mentors?
Two of my main mentors were the pianist and bandleader King Fleming, who’s still performing, and William E. Jackson who is now deceased. He taught me a lot about arranging music. They were my first real teachers, in terms of the approach I started to develop.
What inspires you outside of music?
Painting and visual art.
Anyone in particular?
No, all of the great masters; African artists, European artists. Chinese, Japanese, you name it. All art. My impressions of art and color, and rhythm and color have had a great impact on me in terms of music and art.
Have you ever composed for moving image, say film or video?
No. I’ve been asked that quite a bit, but no, I never have.
The reason I ask is that your music often evokes images for me and I wonder if there’s anything specific that you’re trying to convey, or is it just expressing a feeling inside of you?
Well, music has a basis that can sort of give impressions of drama and related type activities. And in my studies and observations, I more or less observe it all, especially functional music like movie music, so I guess some of it has to get into what I do, you know? Not as a deliberate situation. I don’t know, it’s a part of the music. And sometimes the impression is not to write a musical phrase. The impression might be to write a dramatic phrase. It’s very difficult to put into words, but it’s pretty close to what I could say concerning that question.
In recent years you’ve incorporated certain electronics into your music. Will you be playing those on stage?
Just a little bit.
How do you integrate them without them sounding inhuman? In other words, how do you make a machine sound natural?
I’m not trying to make it sound natural. I’m using it as an element of sound, you know? It’s just a part of the world of sound.
Do you hear sounds in your head that you cannot reproduce?
Sometimes. But it’s probably because I don’t have the instrument to produce it. Maybe the instrument is somewhere else in the world. Or maybe there’s a sound that I’m not sure what instrument could produce it, whether there is an instrument to produce the sound.
As the 20th century is ending, is it time to create a new language for music, new vocabulary?
Well, I don’t think you’re going to create a new language for music because I think music is far beyond that which we know at this time. We’re just discovering more about it. In terms of this age of mankind, I think it’s infinite enough and far enough ahead of us that we’ll just be discovering more ways to approach writing and performing and appreciating music. So I think it’s more a question of that rather than inventing a new music that is different from the basic element inherent in what we call music today.
Do you still record for two different labels; Black Saint and New World?
I regularly record for Black Saint. New World was a side project; a good one and most enjoyable one, of course. But my regular recording work has been with Black Saint, and still is.
The reason I ask is you’re an artist, you’re a composer and instrumentalist, but you also have a foot in the world of commerce in the music business. Do you have difficulty reconciling those two worlds?
No. I think that time and necessity teaches one to become a businessperson in addition to being an artist. Now that’s not true in all cases, but I think in my case it’s true.
Is it distracting for you?
No. It’s two different things in terms of times of concentration. Like this hour you concentrate on the contract. The next hour it’s time to rehearse the music. So you do each particular thing with respect to its time.
I guess now’s the time for a radio interview.
Can we clear up one discrepancy in your bio, the year of your birth? Ekkard Jost writes that you were born in 1929. The Grove Dictionary says it’s 1930. Which is it?
Well you have to go by what I say: 1930. I don’t know where Ekkard Jost got that from.
You’re very well known among creative musicians, but not as much among the general public. Is recognition important to you?
Oh, I think I’m known among the general public, but I guess it depends what general public you’re talking about. The Top 40 public does not know a lot of musicians because the mass media is broadcasting more commercial music, which is ok. And I think that’s the reason. But, on the other hand, if you’re talking about a certain segment of the population, in terms of your comment, then I don’t know. I couldn’t say why it’s that way. So it depends who you’re talking about.
But I’m still wondering whether recognition is important to you?
Of course recognition is important to most artists, in the sense that you want people to hear what you do, because, after all, that’s why you do it. In other words, that’s why you perform it. You want to perform and give it to other people. So of course recognition is very important. But it’s like the end result. You know what I mean?
This interview was broadcast on WPFW-FM in Washington DC on Oct. 6, 1996.