Avant-Garde Ecclesia :: The Music of James Falzone

12 Jun

Originally published April 2010 by Alarm Press.

Falzone (left) is cross-pollinating the classical and jazz worlds

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Things that come to mind when watching clarinetist James Falzone play: a passerine bird (such as a sparrow or a finch), Shakespeare’s Puck, a violently ill inpatient. Sounds hidden within his music: funeral processions of the Middle East, the frenetic beeps and boops of early-’90s video games, malfunctioning industrial automatons. His influences: French composer Olivier Messiaen, jazz clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, oral historian Studs Terkel. What you need to know: to him, all music is cut from the same fabric, and improvisation is a way of life.

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1. In His Own Words

A Chicago native, Falzone is a recording artist, composer, professor, and constant advocate for what he calls the cross-pollination of improvised jazz, classical, and world music. This goes back to when Falzone was 10, when he was given his first stereo and headphones. It was Christmas. He’d been playing the clarinet for six months.

“The first thing I did was turn it on, put the headphones on, and turn to the classical station,” Falzone says. “But the Studs Terkel show was on. So the very first sound I ever heard through headphones was Studs Terkel. And I just found his voice, the sonic quality of his voice, truly fascinating. You know when you’re at a campfire, and you hear the water popping in the logs? It was that kind of a sound. And I’ve always felt like, in some way — it sounds so weird, but in some way, I’m just trying to recapture the kind of warmth I felt when I would hear the sound of his voice.”

To have such a heightened awareness of sound at 10 years old, there might’ve been little doubt that Falzone would end up here, leading several groups and playing in numerous others, all worthy of their own exploration. But first, out of respect for the way that Terkel let people tell their own stories, here’s Falzone’s creative process and frame of mind, in his own words.

“In the last couple of years, my composing time has been relegated to very early in the morning. For instance, tomorrow morning, I will attempt to get up at four, to write music. If I don’t feel like getting up at four, I’ll just stay up ’till four. I’ll occasionally go spend a day somewhere — go to the library or go to my parents’ house in the suburbs, if they’re away.

But the actual truth of it is that I don’t waste any time. Time is so important to me; I just don’t waste it. I don’t watch television; I rarely take a break of any sort.

At this point in my life, I feel called — and I use that word strongly — to be surrounded by great beauty. Making it and being exposed to it. And, of course, I mean that in all sorts of ways — from the pop music that I listen to, to the food that I eat, to the garden that I grow, to the way I raise my children, to their education, and to the way I teach as well.

And it does mean that sometimes I come across musicians who want to play with me, and I don’t sense that they have that same kind of fervor. And I just say, ‘You know, I think there’s probably other people we could be working with.’ There’s got to be room for that.”

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2. The Usual Suspects

Three of Falzone’s most recent projects: Other Doors, by Klang, being released April 26 on his Allos Documents label; Lamentations, a record written for oud (the pear-shaped Middle Eastern stringed instrument), clarinet, and percussion; and something called “Sighs Too Deep For Words.”

The first, Other Doors, is a bit of an odd duck for Falzone. It has the usual suspects: Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone, Jason Roebke on bass, Tim Daisy on drums, and Falzone on clarinet. But conceptually, it re-imagines the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. “A really vital part of music-making is relationships,” Falzone says of his choice to pursue the project. “In many ways, this Benny Goodman record was a salute to that, because one of the things that Goodman did that I respect is [letting] his band-mates shine. He had great sidemen, and he’d let them do their thing. So I tried on this record to give people space to do their own thing , to do the same thing in my own realm that [Goodman] did in his.”

Lamentations is — perhaps predictably — completely different. A meditative study of Arabic modes, it features Ronnie Malley on oud, Tim Mulvenna on hand drums, and Falzone on clarinet. “As a guidepost,” Falzone writes of the album, “I funneled my composing and conceptualizing through the lament, a musical/poetic genre that has transcended cultures and time.”

But perhaps the true incarnation of Falzone — his myriad musical interests, virtuosic skill on the clarinet, and humble vulnerability — is an improvised solo piece called “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” a piece that Falzone’s been writing for nearly two years.

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3. Multiple Personalities

Notes jotted in a five-by-eight, grid-lined notebook during “Sighs Too Deep For Words”:

“Title comes from Paul’s letters.”
“Changes in tone, but not pitches.”
“Blips and glitches.”
“’Woodwind.’”
“Extension of his mouth.”
“Stations = identities.”
“Overtones/undertones.”
“Literally feel it in your ears.”
“The sounds — eventually you can’t differentiate them anymore.”
“You forget to breathe, and when you do, you’re so conscious of it, it’s like gasping.”

What was actually happening: A man with a clarinet, exploring — for 51 minutes — 1) improvisation as a contemplative practice, 2) responding to “the moment,” and 3) the relationship between the conscious and subconscious.

But already, we’re off the map. Improvised solo? He just wings it for an hour? Not quite. Falzone has an idea of where he wants to go, and he uses several types of bells to create ambient sounds that he can interact with. Most importantly, he sets up three stations, each of which has its own identity, its own musical style. That night, three black folding chairs formed an isosceles triangle. Next to the apex was a table, which held the bells. Stage-left was a piano with a cinder block set on its sustain pedal, amplifying the clarinet when it reached certain decibels.

                        table [ ]   station 1                     PIANO

  station 3        station 2

Station One: “The center is this place of control, letting time go by in a way that feels like you have some control over it,” he says. Here, a bell is rung each time he returns — a new hour, a new scene. Things move slowly. Phrases are long.

Station Two: Everything is microtonal. He works in incredibly small and highly dissonant intervals and restricts himself to a low register. Partially, he’s imitating an mbira, an African thumb piano. He plays faster than at Station One. Or does he? “It feels like it’s going faster — even though it’s not,” Falzone says. “There’s no pulse going on. One of the tricks of music is that we’re manipulating time. There was never a pulse anywhere on Saturday night. So was I playing faster? You can’t say I was.”

Station Three: Here, he’s only playing in the most altissimo part of the instrument — “two octaves over the highest C of the instrument.” Normally, a clarinet player’s lips are on the reed, but Falzone puts his teeth on it. This station is about emotional intensity, about not letting yourself off the hook. Some women put their fingers in their ears.

Falzone alternates between each station several times: Station One to Station Two, back to One, to Three, back to One — always back to One and the tolling bell. He really does seem to be a different person in each chair. And yet it’s an illusion, as is much of what Falzone does with his instrument. “It involves a lot of trickery,” he says. “A lot of what I’m doing is not what I was trained to do; it’s not what a clarinet teacher would tell me to do. Even clarinet players would be like, ‘What was that? What did you just do?’ Not that I’m so great; it’s just a lot of false fingerings, putting your fingers down in ways that you’re trained not to do.”

A poignant moment of the performance comes at Station Three, when he throws the smaller bell into the larger and rings it repeatedly, holding his clarinet shriek as he looks for more things to throw in, like a witch over a sonic cauldron. He grabs one of the small Middle Eastern bells and begins shaking it violently, as if he can no longer control his muscles, all while filling the room with a scream that seems to go on and on. After a few seconds, you begin to realize that the two sounds, from the bell and the clarinet, are interacting with each other.

An excerpt from a conversation:

JF: “I don’t know if you guys could hear it, but where I’m at, there’s actually this weird phasing thing going on when I’m playing those high notes and ringing that bell; it showed up on the recording too.”
TA: “Yeah, that’s something I noticed too. Somehow in that register and with that bell, you could literally feel something changing inside your ears at different times, bouncing back and forth.”
JF: “Yeah, yeah.”
TA: “I was trying to figure out how to describe it. I haven’t done it yet.”

“Improvisers have long tried to figure out how to do solo shows,” Falzone explains one day. “It’s been a big thing. It’s so egotistical and masturbatory, to just get up there and be wailing away for 25 minutes. And I’ve done those kind of things, and I’ve always felt like, ‘Well, that just felt awful.’ One of my friends, a great cellist, has said that you can’t improvise solo — because improvisation is about a dialogue. And I think he’s right in some ways, so that’s why I had three personalities — so I could have a dialogue going on.”

It’s not just for the audience’s sake that Falzone sets up the show this way. He says that the older he gets and the more that he improvises, the less a performance is about what notes he plays. “Now it’s about the situations I put myself in,” he says. “That’s an interesting place to be as an artist. I have to think about, ‘Can I get myself in a situation that allows me to be challenged and be put on the edge of all I can do?’ Saturday night was that.”

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4. An Indigenous Sound

The morning after the show at the Experimental Sound Studio, Falzone had another challenging performance, a weekly gig that’s one of the lesser mentioned but more interesting things that he does. In addition to being a creative force in the improvised jazz and classical worlds, Falzone is the director of music for Grace Chicago Church, a small gathering of people that meet in an elementary school in Lakeview. The music, as you might predict, is not typical church music.

The Grace Consort: violin, cello, clarinet, tin whistle, sometimes launeddas, hand drums and percussion (especially bodhrán), guitar, mandolin, and voice. All of the players are working musicians, and almost all are classically trained. But they don’t necessarily share a common faith. Some of the members are agnostics who simply come on Sundays to make beautiful music. If you have experience going to church — even once — you get what an anomaly that is. But it’s natural for Falzone, who refuses to work within the demarcations of “classical” and “jazz,” and so likewise rejects “Christian” and “non-.” Call it another experiment in cross-pollination — one with interesting results. One night, Falzone went to hear Mulvenna and saxophonist Rob Denty at a club in Pilsen. “They were playing this tune, just the two of them,” Falzone recalls, “and I’m thinking, ‘I recognize this, what is this?’ It turns out, it was one of the hymns from church that Tim just loves.”

Though Falzone is a man of faith, he doesn’t have a background in liturgical music. “I’d only had a moderate background even going to church,” he says. “I’d never played music in church, and I kind of stayed away from it, to be honest.” But after being approached in 2002 by his friend Bob Reid, the pastor of Grace Chicago, Falzone decided to try it. He set to crafting arrangements that defy much of what church music has become. In any given arrangement, he is toying with both traditional hymns, contemporary styles of world music, and improvisation, and what he’s doing is resurrecting ancient practices.

A hymn’s words and music used to be separate — any text could be matched with any tune. Hymnals were arranged with indexes in the back, so that songs and words of the same meter could be easily combined. He’s broken these two elements apart again, pairing 15th Century religious texts with a Hindu folk song, for example, or adding an original coda to a centuries-old hymn.
“Everything we do at Grace runs through my filter,” he says. “No hymn is left untouched. And that’s been my solution to the traditional-versus-contemporary-music bullshit. I’ve not been interested in addressing that question…I wanted to make an indigenous sound for this congregation.”

Part of what makes the liturgical music so engaging is the amount of improvisation that the players are capable of. “I might just give people a mode to work with or a set of chord changes,” Falzone says. “Sometimes, I don’t even give them anything. I think of the service as a film score, and I’m trying to bring motifs back and forth. Sometimes those motifs…will be key centers from a previous hymn, so even if they don’t realize it, subconsciously [the congregation] is brought back into a kind of state from that hymn that they sang 10 minutes ago. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but that’s the idea.”

Whether with Klang or the Grace Consort or by himself, Falzone is most interested in cross-pollination. To him, there might be subtle differences between a set at Chicago rock club The Hideout and a performance Sunday morning, but it’s all cut from the same fabric. “When you get six musicians…improvising and creating on the spot,” he says, “I think that’s taking the beauty of music for music’s sake, and celebrating it — because it’s God’s. And when I’m doing something in the non-liturgical realm…and there’s some kind of really great moment that happens — an epiphany in terms of a new height that we’ve reached with the energy that’s created — I think it’s the same thing going on, in both those places.”

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5. A Long Car Ride

If Studs Terkel were alive today, he no doubt would’ve loved interviewing Falzone. In fact, Falzone did meet Terkel once, just before he died. “It was just too short of a meeting to say [everything] to him,” Falzone says, “but I tried to explain that he was really important, and I shook his hand.”

To this day, Terkel remains an anchor for Falzone. Not only are the musician’s compositions crafted from the same courage and vulnerability as the author’s writings, but just the timbre of Terkel’s voice reminds Falzone of a time when he was 10 years old, just starting out on the clarinet, hearing sound through headphones for the first time.

“Whenever I feel like I’m losing something in myself,” he says, “like when I just get so caught up in getting gigs and trying to be a working musician, and forget about being an artist, I get my Studs Terkel tapes out, and I go for a long car ride, and I listen to him again.”

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