Sunday, March 7, 2010

VooDooTek: An Interview with Lawrence Sieberth

Interview by Chris Becker

“I’ve always considered music to be a bridge to the spirit world…” Lawrence Sieberth

After moving from New Orleans to New York City, I managed to stay connected to keyboardist / composer Lawrence Sieberth thanks to the Internet and email keeping him posted on my music activities. My first memory of Larry is hearing him on piano performing his 1995 tribute concert Booker and Black at the Contemporary Arts Center which celebrated the music of New Orleans musicians pianist James Booker and drummer James Black with projected visuals by artist Jon Graubarth (Jon created the artwork for my CD Saints & Devils). More recently, Larry emailed to say he thought I might dig his latest CD Arkipelago and could hear the whole thing streaming on his website I downloaded the mp3 version, eventually got a copy the CD, and for several weeks listened to Arkipelago at least once a day. I just couldn’t get enough of the music and the production which reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s So, Jon Hassell’s City: Works of Fiction, and other recordings that artfully combine (to quote writer musician Michael Veal): “...the traditional conception of “note-based” music and the potentials of sound recording as an aesthetic medium on its own terms.” Larry is firmly grounded in the piano playing traditions of New Orleans. And Arkipelago will surprise some fans of that music and expand their perception of what “New Orleans” music is and has the potential to be.

Chris Becker: Where were you born?

Larry Sieberth: I was born in Detroit but moved to Baton Rouge when I was 5 - stayed in Baton Rouge until I went to Loyola University in New Orleans at the age of 20. Baton Rouge is culturally challenged. Fortunately there were several people that inspired and encouraged me in my musical development. (Trumpeter) Lee Fortier was a great musical inspiration for me as well as for many of the wonderful musicians to come out of Baton Rouge. (Clarinetist) Alvin Batiste was another major figure that I had the pleasure of knowing at Southern University.

CB: Your CD Arkipelago combines synth programming, extended through-composed compositions that include sudden unexpected breaks and rhythmic changes, and real-time “in the moment” improvisation. The title track (featuring Joo Kraus on trumpet) and the track Le Serpente Volant (featuring Ed Peterson on saxophone) are two examples of what I’m describing.

Can you talk about how you recorded those two particular tracks? Did you provide any specific instructions to Joo or Ed before tracking their performances? Or was that not necessary given your familiarity with their each musician’s approach to improvising?

LS: If I can backtrack a bit it will help help explain the way this project materialized. Over the last couple of decades I've been part of 'free' improvisational collaborations with other musicians, dancers and visual artists - the driving force of these performances has sometimes been spontaneous, a response to visual imagery or prerecorded tracks. There is a range as to what the word 'improvisation' implies - playing 'changes', manipulating the form, responding to the moment, etc. are all ways of perceiving the options inherent in improvisational music - all idioms and musical combinations of personalities have a built in set of expectations, manifest as compositions, styles, forms, tonal centers, etc. even when it is not predetermined. when the musician is faced with the option to create something new without preconceptions the creative mind is opened, allowed to connect with a communal state of being as opposed to reaching into the bag of tricks that our intellect builds - not to throw away that bag of tricks but to transcend it - for me, these situations have been some of the most joyful musical experiences of my career. This is not to say that I haven't enjoyed arranging and composing in the traditional sense. I like the balance between the two extremes - in truth, however, it can be self-indulgent and not something I want to listen to all the time. The 'quality' of the music, albeit quite subjective, can range from 'totally happening' to 'totally boring' whether I'm a musical participant or just a listener – it’s hard to convey why some 'noise' can be inspirational.

Arkipelago is the result of many performances of an ever changing group i assembled over several years called VooDooTek - the objective was to start with a blank canvas and draw upon the talents of the musicians assembled at the time - the idea was for everyone to contribute musical ideas to the direction of the music - responding and being open to the unexpected - whenever I felt the music had run its course I would abruptly change the musical context or mood. With electronics it is easier to cut through the volume of sound. The one prerequisite of the musicians was listening - for me a most important quality of musicianship. All the tracks on the CD started off as through composed synth soundtracks – soundscapes might be a better analogy - a combination of textures, industrial loops, otherworldly sounds - sometimes empty space - very sculptural - the charts are diagrams with emotional directives, sometimes a bass line, sometimes a tonal center - an integral part was the click that signaled sections and tempos that was removed - the core group, myself on more synths, Doug Belote on drums, Nori Naraoka on bass and Makuni Fukada on guitar, played with the prerecorded tracks - it was important for them to perceive those tracks as part of the improvised structure rather than a composition - since i was also incorporating more synth sounds and textures it was naturally impossible to separate what was virtual and what was live - so the whole track seems improvised but compacted due to its composition directives - most takes were the second take. Joo Kraus added his part in Germany and sent it back to me in New Orleans - I had played with him at a jazz festival and we really hit it off. I gave him no directions and the track you hear is virtually edit free.

Ed Peterson was present during the original takes - the other musicians were added later as I fortunately was asked to play with them on other concerts here in New Orleans - it was very important for me to find the right musicians as I very rarely influenced anybody's musical contributions - their contributions are unique and personal - even i had to leave my expectations at the door.

CB: Another thing I love about Arkipelago is how your mixes create a surreal sense of space and time similar to what one hears from the best of contemporary electronica and rock producers. Are there musicians and/or producers outside of the “jazz” world that inspired Arkipelago?

LS: I have had many influences throughout my life both musical and not - musically speaking I would say this project could be described as Bitches Brew in the 21st century with a little Joe Zawinul, Toru Takemitsu, Morton Subotnik, Peter Gabriel and Ornette Coleman thrown into the gumbo pot - not your usual New Orleans influences. New Orleans' music is usually associated with Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, etc. but there is a more adventuresome spirit that unfortunately goes very unnoticed here in New Orleans. I felt it a goal to reveal something entirely different. One of the greatest comments (about Arkipelago) was given to me by the wonderful New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley: "It is its own soundtrack."

The goal for me with all creative music is to take the listener on a journey. It is more than entertainment. This consequently calls upon the musicians to take you on a journey. I think we hit the mark with this project. The studio was essential in the creation of Arkipelago. Sometimes the basic tracks laid dormant for quite sometime until I stumbled across the right musician to finish the track. I have a wonderful relationship with Michia Kachkachishvili (the engineer) who contributed much to this project especially with the spatial placement of sounds. Sonic space is important. I let him do his 'magic' and then tweek. Makes my job as producer easy. Knowing when to let others contribute is essential to being a good producer. It could have been a mixing nightmare with the massive number of tracks and density of the music. I perceive music with an architectural bent - add and subtract - everything is connected. A reviewer of this CD equated Arkipelago as “fractal music” - I like this - the parts and the whole are inseparable.

CB: Vocalist Amit Chatterjee’s performance on the track Samsara Rosa has a powerful devotional quality to it. New Orleans is home to some very powerful spiritual practices. Did any particular spiritual or religious theology inspire the music you composed on Arkipelago?

LS: I’ve always considered music to be a bridge to the spirit world - the composition Samsara Rosa sat for quite a while, incomplete, as a world groove framework. I had experimented with keyboards and other instrumentalists but nothing seemed to work for me. I have a virtual plug-in that had some Indian vocal phrase samples and I liked the way it sounded but obviously there was nothing alive with the samples. I found that Badal Roy, whom I've performed with was coming to New Orleans with Amit Chatterjee – and knowing his work with Zawinul set the wheels in motion. I contacted him and played the piece for him and he was very happy to contribute to the project. What you hear is his first take – unedited. Since our three-hour session was finished in fifteen minutes, I suggested to him that we improvise an intro as a duet - that is also the first take unedited. I was amazed at how the musical pieces fell into place. I admit to being a novice of Indian music theory…all I can say is that we built the bridge to the spirit world on that one. Much about music is extending beyond one's self as if the person becomes the conduit for some otherworldly experience. Music connects us to the possibility of answers to the questions that are unanswerable. Spirituality is as unique as one's musical voice.

CB: There’s a lot of hope for the future now in New Orleans given the Saints 2010 Super Bowl win, the election of a new mayor, and a positive assessment by its citizens of the tremendous about of rebuilding that has been accomplished since hurricane Katrina – although clearly so much still needs to be done. What are your hopes for the future for musicians who currently call New Orleans home?

LS: New Orleans has always been a place for musicians to work. There is a ceiling here, and the world's perception of New Orleans music is somewhat narrow - i.e an extension of Louis Armstrong. It has definitely been hit by the economic crisis that the rest of the country is feeling. Each of us has to weigh the options. Being a musician anywhere is a risky proposition.

Arkipelago along with many other of Larry’s CDs can be heard streaming and purchased at his website

Upcoming performances by Larry Sieberth including Jazz Fest (April 23 through May 2, 2010) dates:

April 23 - Harrahs - 8pm - Joints Jumpin: A New Orleans R&B revue
April 23 - Bombay club 10pm - w/ Leslie Smith
April 24 - Bombay club - 9:30pm - w/ Phillip Manuel
April 25 - Jazzfest w/ Keely Smith
April 27 - Blue Nile - 10pm - Neslort
April 29 - Jazzfest - Topsy Chapman
April 29 - Jazzfest - Lady Sing the Blues
April 30 - Harrahs - 8pm - Joints Jumpin: A New Orleans R&B revue
May 2 - Jazzfest w/ Germaine Bazzle
May 2 - Jazzfest w/ Phillip Manuel

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