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In Conversation – Steve Lawson & Michael Manring (2000)

“SL – Michael, when you started playing solo bass, there was very little repetoir, and certainly very few precedents for people making a career out of it, or doing whole live gigs like that – who inspired you and what were the pivotal events in your coming to a position where playing solo was a viable option? Can you remember your first ever completely solo gig?

MM -In the beginning my primary inspiration for wanting to play solo bass gigs was just that I loved the sound of the instrument and I thought it really should be heard in an unadorned format where all of its subtle colors could be appreciated. In terms of context, I drew a lot of inspiration from the steel string guitarists who were out there doing solo shows. It was also exciting to hear how solo artists in the jazz realm like Joe Pass or Bill Evans, could instantly take their music anyplace they wanted to – changing tempo, arrangement or dynamics on the fly. Working with Michael Hedges was at tremendous inspiration for me because his whole solo concept was so clear and focused. His solo performance was totally engaging on many levels and experiencing that strengthened my resolve to work with the possibilities of bass as a solo instrument in spite of the opposition that so many folks seemed to have to the idea. I had no idea if anyone would ever want to listen to what I was trying to come up with, but I just felt an overwhelming need to try.

A lot of my pivotal experiences came from composing new pieces or coming up with new concepts. Many of my early pieces were both too hard to play and not terribly appealing to listen to, so it took a while for me to gather enough repertoire to feel like I could give a convincing solo performance. I felt I had to come up with something that was simultaneously interesting and entertaining in order to be viable and to keep from boring everyone to tears. With the prejudice that seemed to exist against the idea of solo bass I figured it really had to be good to work! I’m still trying to find ways to make solo bass more intriguing to an audience.

Throughout the early eighties I had been doing a lot of shows where I would play one or a few solo pieces as part of a larger program, but my first real solo show was in California sometime around 1985. I was just finishing up my first solo record and I remember playing the title track, “Unusual Weather,” “Longhair Mobile” and “Thunder Tactics.” At that time I was living in New York, but I was so impressed with how open and apparently unfazed Californians seemed to be to the whole idea of solo bass that I decided to move here!

Now one for you: I’m fascinated by being alive in this time when we have access to technology that we can use to expand the scope of what’s possible in music. There are pitfalls of course, and I enjoy trying to maintain a balance of sort of high- and low-tech approaches. You have integrated technology into your concept in such an effective way. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this. What are the positives and negatives? Do you have a philosophy or directive you use to decide how to use a particular tool?

SL – That’s a fantastic question! I too am really excited by the possibilities, but am at times overawed by the scope of the technology, both to be an amazing tool, but also to mask the creative process by constricting things. This is particularly true with looping, as the parameters are, on the surface, very clearly defined. So with every new bit of equipment, I allow myself plenty of time to get to know it before subject an audience to it – working with it for hours, and thinking about what’s possible with it, and also just improvising and seeing how it responds to a random element. Nearly all of my best ideas have been mistakes, or at least the product of random events! So my philosophy is to explore the parameters… actually I use a permutation approach that I was messing around with before but which was solidified by watching your video! I took what you were doing with notes on the neck and applied it to the JamMan, exploring all the functions in different combinations. I’ve recently got a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, which is an unbelievable bit of technology. I’m taking my time to work through all the functions, seeing how they widen my technical options when performing solo, then seeing if they open up new arrangement possibilities for tunes that I’ve been playing for some time. I’m certainly discovering how I can take ‘cell’ musical ideas – fragments of melody or chord sequences – and allow the possibilities of the technology to inform where it goes next. I’m currently using 4 unsync’d loop boxes – the Gibson EDP, Lexicon JamMan, Line 6 DL4 and Lexicon MPX-G2, which gives me loads of possibilities for shifting soundscapes, and the option of recording lines early on in a piece and then triggering them at various times. So is that a well formulated philosophy? I’m not sure!

MM – I really liked what you said about how you sort of “encounter” a new device. Isn’t it fascinating how, at some point certain tools go from being “toys” to being “instruments.” The only real difference is in the intention of the user, I think. There’s a tendency to think of an instrument as being something necessarily complex and/or subtle, but just the other day I was playing with a bansuri player and I was surprised to see what a very simple instrument it is — just a basic wooden tube with a few strategically placed holes. I’ve always been very moved by the sound of the bansuri and in the hands of someone like Hariprasad Chaurasia it seems infinitely deep. It’s an intriguing thought that almost anything can be an instrument of expression as long as the user has the creativity and imagination to bring it to life. For some folks, electronic effects might just be gimmicks, but you use them to expand the scope of your expressive palette.

SL – On a similar theme, how did your relationship with Joe Zon of Zon Guitars develop and how did the new technical advances of The Hyperbass change the way you write and perform?

MM – In answer to your question, The Hyperbass was an interesting project in that my concept for what I wanted to do with it was pretty well formed before the instrument was constructed. Normally, like you, I usually take a somewhat reactive approach to a new piece of gear — check it out and see what it can do and then start to form a concept around that. In the case of The Hyperbass though, I had been goofing around with things like changing tunings (by turning tuning keys) while I was playing for a while and I wanted to find someone who was interested in building an instrument that would help facilitate that. Turning the keys is fine and all, but it just seemed like there were better, more complete ways to accomplish the task. Everybody who I talked to pretty much thought I was crazy except Joe. In fact, he had a few crazy ideas of his own to toss into the mix! By the time The Hyperbass was finished, I knew just what I wanted to do with it and the first couple of compositions came together very quickly. More recently though, I’ve been having fun finding ways to play it that I never thought would work. Slapping, for instance – I never thought it would even be possible to slap on it because the fingerboard is so long, but I find I’ve been developing a kind of percussive technique based on slap that has really been capturing my imagination lately. I guess it’s that limitations and quirks thing again — I can’t do the typical kind of slapping on The Hyperbass, so that has led me into trying to develop a different kind of style based on slap, but with its own idiosyncrasies. Joe and I have many other design ideas we’re anxious to explore, but sadly it’s hard to find the time and money for it as not that many folks are interested in that type of thing. However, I’m a long, long way from having tapped out the possibilities of The Hyperbass. I’m learning more about it, and more from it everyday.

It’s so interesting too, how sometimes it’s limitations that set us free. There’s that old saying, “limitation is the basis of style” and I think there’s truth to that. Sometimes it’s the quirks of a piece of gear that really give it a defining character. I wonder how you conceive of the boundaries of your instrument. It seems to me that you have incorporated the electronics seamlessly and integrally into the identity of the instrument. Is that true or do you think of the instrument ending at the output jack and everything else as accoutrement? How about the amp and speakers? Cables, even?!

SL – In that respect, I began to think about and conceptualize what I do in a different way after you mentioned that you see bass as being a fusion of acoustic and electric – that the sound is as acoustic in origin as any amplified acoustic instrument. It’s just the degree to which you choose to mess with it – volume is a parameter to be altered just like any other. It’s true that my approach to what I play and how is greatly affected by the gear that I’m using – I’m kind of in awe of guys like yourself who can just sit down and play beautiful music without the need for extra processing – I guess once I got into the processing thing, it sort of attached itself to my whole music making ethos. I still occasionally sit down and try to write completely solo pieces, but I think in layers and textures as much as I do harmony and melody. Sound is my fundamental element in music, not the usual trinity of melody, harmony and rhythm – what I do with that sound is in service of it, rather than the other way round. So in that respect, the electronics the amp, and yes, even the cables have an influence!

MM – Another question for you: I know you have an interesting balance of improvisation and pre-composition in your music. How important is improv in what you do and what different approaches to it do you take? Are there any pieces that you play verbatim?

SL – The balance varies from day to day and gig to gig – improv is vital to that process of allowing randomness into it, and honing my own ability to react and respond to chance events in the music. So even with pieces that are composed, I still tend to flip part of it back to front at some point, or pick a sound I’ve not added in there before, just to go somewhere else with it.

‘The Inner Game’, from my first CD is about as composed as it gets, in that it has an initial loop, opening melody, and a couple of other additions to the loop that are always the same, and then the rest of it is like a jazz tune – soloing over the form. From there, there’s a pretty smooth continuum (cool title for a tune, perhaps? :o) all the way to ‘hit it and see what happens’ at the completely random end, where I not only randomize the pitch and rhythm, but also the techniques, experimenting with whatever idea comes to mind and trying to make it work. I’m also in the middle of an obsession with duo improv at the moment, as I love the conversational aspect, and the give and take, response, direction and comedy of the whole thing – that’s totally the thinking behind the new CD with Jez Carr… I’m planning a whole series of them, recontextualising what I do, in conversation with various improvisers. You seem to work with both extremes – strict composition and free improv, and from listening to your improv projects, you also take ideas that emmerge in improv and develop them into tunes. Do you view improv as a compositional tool or a separate event? How much continuing development goes into the heavily composed tunes? The Enormous Room seems to have space (haha!) for you to react in the moment, and reorder some bits of it, no?

MM – I really like how you are working on expanding the parameters of music. I always feel lucky to be working in music at this time when we have so much control over timbre. It really used to be a subordinate quality after melody, harmony and rhythm, but it’s almost like we get to discover a new world and make new rules (or choose not to make rules!). What a great idea to approach it from the angle of layers, too. Now that you mention it, I really see how your music is structured that way. Of course, you have the timbral imagination and palette to make it work. And all of it originating from what most folks would consider a highly unlikely instrument – because I think most “civilians” see bass as very monochromatic. That’s when art is really fun — when it surprises you, opens up your sense of what’s possible, fires your imagination and delights you all at once. It’s fun to experiment with improvisation, too. For so long in the West, improv has meant jazz blowing over chord changes, but there are so many other options. Timbral improv is a really intriguing idea! I went through a phase when I wanted to avoid improv in my solo concept because I felt like it was kind of a competitive thing. I just have a need to be contrary sometimes, and although I grew up in the jazz tradition I wanted to just go out and play my tunes to allow me to focus all my attention on phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone, intonation, etc. Sometimes even great improvisers skimp on those areas because the intellectual demands of improv are so great. But these days, like you, I’m really enjoying doing a lot of improv and looking for different improvisation concepts. In playing solo, the improv possibilities are so vast — all the interpretive things I mentioned before, but also tempo, form, etc. before you even get into thinking about playing different notes! And of course, your timbral improv idea is a whole other realm. I also vary the improv in my solo shows like you do. I have some tunes like “Adhan,” which are just sort of general sets of tendencies and parameters for improv while others are pretty much through composed. I always look for what kind of improvisation a piece seems to want to entertain. For a long time I’ve felt that there were some interesting improv possibilities in “The Enormous Room,” and once in a while I find some, but I’m still searching for the methodology for that one. I just listen as deeply as I can to see if I can hear what a piece tells me it wants to do. I agree the duo thing is strong, too, especially in an improv context. It’s interesting how the smallest numbers sometimes seem to have the most significance. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 14,758 and 14,759 for instance, but the difference between 1 and 2 is huge. Compared to other numbers they are so strange that they’d seem almost surreal if they weren’t so common. (Sorry for the tangent!) In any case, I really look forward to hearing your other interactive projects. Will you keep the same basic premise or do you think you will alter the concept when you have other personalities to interact with?

SL – That numbers idea is a good one – on that theme, I often find that the strangest of thoughts and ideas can influence the way I think about, approach and therefor play music – a single word, such as ‘permutation’ can lead me down a whole other path in a way that affects me far more than messing around with a new scale or whatever would.

For the duo stuff, I guess it will depend on who I’m playing with, and what the sum of their musical journey brings to the project. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I do, but I can be quite forceful in a musical setting like that, which is one of the reasons why on ‘Conversations’, I only used the Line 6 DL4 for all the looping – otherwise, I’d be in danger of drowning out the piano, or just not listening in quite the same intense way as I was able to with the music more open texture that we developed. I have a duo with a a keyboardist/guitarist called Patrick Wood, and what we do it much more heavily layered – I’m using my whole solo set up, and he’s playing keys and guitar, sometimes at the same time! I’m also about to start work with a vibraphonist, which brings it’s own set of unique creative limitations to a project, that will hopefully inspire some new music in me.

MM – On that general train of thought, I’d love to hear your ideas about the concept of “experimental” music. As far as I know, no one has really quite done what you are doing, so you are in a new artistic place. Do you think of it as “experimental” or do you find the term inappropriate? Or is it just a matter of semantics that has nothing to do with actual music making?

SL – I think semantics have everything to do with music, so your perception of the labels that are put on you really impacts the music. ‘Experimental’ is a term with a heck of a lot of baggage. It’s a label I’ve used for my stuff a few times just for ease of use, but there seems to be within in a connotation of it being unmelodic or ‘hard work’, which anyone listening to my first album would be hard pushed to find – a lot of what I’ve done up until now has been conceptually experimental, but harmonically a bit more ‘inside’.

When it comes to labeling or describing what I do, I find that really well written reviews can give me a new insight into my own music! I had one recently from a guitarist/writer in LA who seemed to understand what I was doing and where I was going almost more than I did, and it allowed me to think about what I did in a freer way.

I do think we need some new labels for what’s happening now – the labels that related to jazz and to electronica in the 60s and 70s don’t work for much of what’s happening now – I’m certainly not playing ‘free jazz’ or ‘fusion’ – I think something like ‘open adventurous improv’ would work for me – it carries no history, is very open ended stylistically, but contains a description of the intent of the musicians – to improvise something new, which does ‘need’ to be really weird – or what a violinist I knew described as ‘squeaky gate music’ – but can easily switch from nice harmony to full on noise if that’s where the musicians take it. Again, the duo format allows for a sense of dialogue that isn’t really available anywhere else. I think we did a great job of keeping things conversational and open on the tour with Rick Walker last year, but part of the creative buzz for me was the increased tension of three people all exerting an influence – it became more of a ‘debate’ than a conversation, and that threw out some fascinating music.

It’s a shame that there’s so little conceptualizing that goes on in music – I certainly wouldn’t be playing what I play if my ‘game plan’ were different. So many people just jump in and play without ever thinking why… I can feel this heading towards a question or two about music education, but maybe we’ll leave that for a future issue!”

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