Transcript of the interview:
[audio clip from "Don't Stop (NYC, 7 years)"]
John Schaefer: This is some music written by Ken Thomson, who is part of a collective that calls itself the Anti-Social Music group, and joining me in our WNYC studio are composers Ken Thomson and Franz Nicolay, who are taking part in a big Anti-Social Music event tomorrow evening here in New York at CAMI Hall on West 57th St at Seventh Avenue. Franz and Ken, good to have you here. Are you guys genuinely anti-social?
Ken Thomson: We can't tell you.
JS: Very nice, very nice.
KT: You know, it's funny, because we thought of that - I guess Franz actually was the person who thought of that name...
Franz Nicolay: Yeah, it was originally sort of a little bit of a put-on to begin with, but, you know, I get this question a lot, and by way of answering it I usually suggest that...
JS: That the questioner go take a flying leap?
FN: Well, that people try a test, next time you're throwing some sort of a social event, a cocktail party, for example, that on your CD changer, in between your Portishead and your Strokes CDs, you put on a CD of contemporary chamber music...
JS: And see what happens.
FN: And see how long it takes before your guests begin to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and start edging towards the door, and then email me and tell me exactly what happens.
JS: Ok, so now, when you guys are writing music, are you writing music thinking that people who are throwing cocktail parties might in fact be able to stick this in between Portishead and the Strokes and have the party go on?
FN: I think absolutely not!
KT: I think that the fun thing is that there's no way on earth that that would be possible.
KT: I think that everything that we do has got some kind of conflict in it, I think that's one of the main kind of themes that we've got, and that's why the name actually works really well. And I think that conflict is what makes it amazing to listen to but is something that is just, you know, in a party situation people would just kind of go, "Eeyaugh!"
JS: Well now this, I mean this is one of the big questions that's been facing people who write classical music, chamber music, whatever, is, you know, what do you do about trying to reach a, you know, the audience that is listening to that music, to the Strokes and Portishead and pop music and dance music, whatever. It sounds like you guys are saying, "You can't deal... you have to just do what you do, and that's a different world".
FN: I think - personally, I think contemporary chamber music is the new frontier in socially unacceptable music for the youth of today.
FN: I mean, I like the punk rock, I play the punk rock, but the punk rock has lost its cachet as something to offend your parents and annoy your friends. I encourage the punk rockers of the world to explore the new anti-social music.
JS: Well, there are lots of younger musicians whose parents were listening to punk rock when punk rock started, so when your parents were listening to it, I think you're right Franz, you do lose that sort of rebellious attitude a little bit when... you know, when Mom and Dad listened to the same stuff that you're listening to now.
FN: I couldn't agree more.
JS: Alright, Ken, we heard a little bit of your piece, uh, what's the name of this work?
KT: It's called "Don't Stop (NYC 7 years)", and it's just, uh... I've been here for seven years, and it's kind of about the energy of the city, and it's... I think that some of it kind of works well - it's almost representative of a lot of the stuff we do because it's totalist in a lot of ways, you know, it's got elements of everything in it. You can't walk around the city without hearing rock'n'roll, classical music, um...
KT: Jazz, Afro-Cuban, hip-hop, everything is coming at you every which way, and there's no way to be in your twenties and be a composer other than to actually find a way to synthesize it and put it all together and say, "Well, this is how it's filtering through my head". So I think that's a lot of what we do.
JS: It sounds like it's essentially a sax ensemble.
KT: It's two alto saxophones, myself and Peter Hess, and Pat Muchmore playing cello, and Eric Rockwin playing bass; and a lot of it is the two saxophones versus the two strings, and a lot of the time they're really arguing with each other, they kind of join together for a little while, and at the end there's kind of this climactic, uh, kind of rock and roll section right at the end of it.
JS: Is this one of the pieces on the program tomorrow night?
KT: This is not, uh, we - all of our concerts, we do concerts twice a year that are fully premiere concerts, so it's music that has never been heard before. This is from a concert that we - our last concert, that was in December, and we have a bunch of new works on the program tomorrow night which are, um - which are just amazing. We've been rehearsing until midnight or one a.m. every night with these pieces trying to make heads or tails out of 'em...
KT: I think we've got it, actually! But, yeah, that's really the fun thing about these, which is that it's music that's never been heard before, which is also great because we're all performers, and so we get to say, "Well, I don't care about how that clarinetist used to play Brahms, I can play this the way I want to play it."
JS: That's great. Ken Thomson is the composer of this work.
[audio clip of "Don't Stop (NYC, 7 years)"]
JS: Music from Ken Thomson, who has already warned us this is not one of the pieces on tomorrow's program from Anti-Social Music because it's not brand-new.
KT: You missed it!
JS: But there are, I mean, you guys do have, like, repertoire shows, I mean you don't just create these pieces, play them once, and then they, you know, die a slow death?
FN: Absolutely, and one of the fun things about the way we're set up to do the repertory shows is we do them in places where this sort of music would not necessarily be presented. For example, we've got one coming up on the Fourth of July, we're doing a show on a rooftop in East Williamsburg as part of a big festival, that should be a lot of fun.
JS: Uh huh.
KT: Did one at Chashama a couple months ago, it's a non-profit theater space on 42nd Street, we're probably going to be at Galapagos in Brooklyn in the fall, and we're just... trying to move it around. We're probably going to be in Atlanta doing the Independent Georgia Festival, happening in August, so we're trying to really get this as far as possible out from the standard concert hall place.
JS: Right. Now, you're all performers, in addition to being composers, and, you know, since... well, at least since Philip Glass and Steve Reich, that's been a big part of the American contemporary music scene, but of course, you know, you go back to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, those guys were performers...
KT: They knew how to improvise, too.
JS: They knew how to improvise. And, so, how big a part of that - improvisation, how big a part does that play in your respective works, and in the group's work?
FN: It depends on the composer... I think it plays a big part. A big part our identity as a group is the fact that all the members have experience in so many different fields of music, and improvisation experience, and play in rock bands, and...
KT: Studied classical chamber music!
FN: God forbid!
KT: Even if we weren't speaking to our teachers by the time we were finished. In my case.
JS: Alright. Franz, your piece has kind of an unusual musical influence; it's dedicated to the late and really unusual American composer named Moondog... obviously not his real name, Louis T. Hardin. Here's a guy who in the Seventies stood on a street corner in midtown dressed in antlers and, you know, sort of Viking regalia and basically sold his LPs from a streetcorner, and then went to Germany and made all this weird kind of big band music. What have you done in this piece?
FN: Well, Moondog is one of my favorite composers - one in a long list of cranky eccentrics that I think appeal to a lot of young composers with a contrarian bent...
JS: So you're saying he was anti-social even before Anti-Social Music?
FN: There you go. Something like that. I mean, anyone who somehow manages to wrangle himself a contract with Columbia to record orchestral music by standing out on a streetcorner for ten years, you have to respect that.
JS: Absolutely, absolutely.
FN: Talk about coming from outside the academic mainstream.
JS: Uh huh.
FN: So basically I just wanted to write something, you know, to pay a little tribute to him. I took some aspects that I enjoy in his music, particularly the use of percussion grounds, the polyrhythmic percussion that go underneath a lot of his pieces; and the use of sort of sentimental sax melodies...
JS: And he knew how to play jazz, knew how to write jazzy pieces, big fan of Benny Goodman's band...
JS: So, little elements of...
FN: Friend of Charlie Parker's.
JS: Uh huh? Was he really?
FN: Yeah, actually, he wrote this piece called "Bird's Lament" after Parker died which bizarrely I heard on a, of all places, a Hyundai commercial last year.
FN: I don't have the faintest idea what music director came up with this and sold it, but...
JS: That's where we're all getting our music education from these days, are car commercials.
FN: Yeah, go figure.
JS: So, um, what's the name of this piece?
FN: This piece is called "each today is yesterday's tomorrow", which is a quote from - one of his aphorisms.
JS: OK, and it's sort of dedicated to Moondog?
JS: ... But it's music by Franz Nicolay, who is part of the Anti-Social Music collective.
[Audio clip from "each today is yesterday's tomorrow (for moondog)"]
JS: Franz Nicolay wrote this piece, which is called "all of yesterday"... wait a minute, "all of today"... Go ahead, you do it.
FN: "each today is yesterday's tomorrow".
JS: "each today is yesterday's tomorrow". Alright. And, so, again, since we have a tape of this clearly not a brand-new piece so it won't be on the concert tomorrow.
FN: Yes. Premieres only.
KT: Premieres only!
FN: Hot off the presses!
KT: That's part of the whole anti-social thing - as much as you like it, we're not gonna do it again.
JS: Ken Thomson and Franz Nicolay are just part of the Anti-Social Music collective, and they're performing tomorrow night, June 21st, at CAMI Hall, at 8pm. Wonder if the folks at CAMI know what they're in for tomorrow.
JS: If you'd like information, the number to call is 917-543-0947; you can also get information on the web, the Soundcheck page at wnyc.org. Ken, Franz, good luck with the event tomorrow.
KT: Thank you John.
FN: Thank you very much.
JS: And, uh, thanks for joining us today. This is Soundcheck, at 93.9 WNYC, I'm John Schaefer.
[Audio clip from "each today is yesterday's tomorrow (for moondog)"]
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