In the midst of the passage of time between interviewing Paul and buying the ticket to the BOAC gig, I contacted Paul to share with him the article I had written on pianist and improvisor, Matthew Shipp. Paul’s response to me was: ".......& interview Thurston!" Ok, I thought. I knew he was going to perform at MASSMoCA, so the opportunity for a connection and reason to interview him existed.
The truth was at that point that I had to do some serious research to find out about Thurston’s music, thoughts, and as it turned out, philosophy behind creativity. I discovered that a recent album had been released that was recorded in Europe called "Three Incredible Ideas"; this album was totally improvised music-Thurston on guitar, one performer on trombone, the other on cello, electric bass and all on electronic devices. This was right up my alley. But, and this was a big "but", I found out about his "punk/alternative" rock career, his founding of the group Sonic Youth--- everything that involved music that I was only familiar with through earshot of my son’s stereo. This made me very nervous... I was going outside of my element really, at least in terms of writing. Encouraged by DJ Spooky, I pursued Thurston by email. When he granted me the interview, it was as if I had achieved a monumental task. I was in a state of disbelief.
Finding Sonic Youth recordings posed no problems; I knew that their sound had to be a part of the influx of information before talking to Thurston. I found SY’s "Murray Street" and "Goo", but not "Dirty "or Thurston’s first solo recording, "Psychic Hearts". "Three Incredible Ideas" I had to order over the internet--this recording alone indicated to me an aspect of Thurston’s musical abilities that did not necessarily come through when he played with his rock group.
Hearing "Murray Street" for the first time knocked me out. I was taken by the guitar work immediately. And the texture of the music impressed me to understand why Bang On A Can would be interested in commissioning Thurston. For looming out of this alternative rock recording was a simplicity evoked by repetition of phrase and polyrhythms for which BOAC has a penchant and is known for performing. "Goo" contained strains of the same kind of guitar lines but was not as focused as those on "Murray Street". "Three Incredible Ideas " upended the nature of the music of SY because the improvised music expressed the smartness and the shape that could not be fully realized in the SY recordings.
My interview with Thurston, I predetermined, was going to focus on Thurston, not on Sonic Youth. For it was he, alone, who had been commissioned by BOAC.
Thurston and I sat in his living room across from each other. I was on the couch and his tall, skinny body was jackknifed into a small armless Victorian chair. His boyish voice matched his boyish, tender face and dirty blonde locks. His appearance defied his intellect.
My questions started out with the subject of the psychology of his music. Somehow we slid into talking about the improvised music project. Thurston talked about his wanting to play in an austere venue whereas the other two performers wanted to play in rock clubs. The fact that Thurston spoke about austerity laid groundwork for the state of his creative mind. It told me that he wanted to transcend the SY identity and move into other arenas. It was the shaping of these arenas that required his conscious attention. He talked about how SY had evolved its rhythmic ideas----how the 1992 "Dirty " was "crude and juvenile". And the recent 2002 "Murray Street" manifested a culmination of a rhythmic evolution whereby the voice of the group, nearly 20 years from its inception, was finally coming into being. Thurston demonstrated that he was already on his way to a transcendental plane.
Thurston continually returned in the conversation to the idea of simplicity and starting from a clean slate. In 1979-80, Thurston played with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, who initiated the large sound minimalism that grew out of the Morton Feldman expressive classicism and the John Cage sensibility. Thurston made a significant point that, for him, John Cage succeeded in "liberating the musician" whereby no judgment is placed on the musician’s technical abilities. For instance, a musician could play the spoons as long as he "employs what he can do within a piece-the limitations are set, but all is allowed."
Not only does this description of Cage’s influence on Thurston loom large in how Thurston personally thinks but also it describes how, in order to compose, Thurston is taking all of his musical experience and is placing it in a context that is extremely pristine and unadulterated, and is consistent with the sparseness of minimalistic predilections. How closely does he stay within his background, for he left college in West Connecticut and moved to New York City to plunge into "life" to learn so that he could weed out what is important and what is not. So he could discover what to include in his music and what to throw out even as he has progressed into the present. He has put all the Cage influence, the poetry & literature & Patti Smith influence, the Fluxus Art & Yoko Ono influence, the resultant "the industrial noise" music of SY into a funnel, has assumed "the responsibility for what sound is produced" and is producing it and/or is providing the means for producing it. What comes through the funnel is the growth of Thurston’s language. He has literally taught himself how to speak the language that he is developing more and more as his own.
The piece of Thurston’s that was commissioned by BOAC, performed at MASSMoCA, is called "Stroking ". "Stroking " was presented to the ensemble as a "blueprint" for what the ensemble is to do. The group was given an array of elements that can be performed for each instrument, in this case, percussion, electric guitar, string bass, cello and piano, and each performer is to make a choice from the givens in regard to what will work based on listening to the music. This is an extremely present tense mode of operation. It is close to the guide to which indeterminacy alludes. The main line is Thurston’s guitar line which forms the basis for the harmonies that arise from the rest of the performers playing. In some ways, Thurston was completely in control as conductor of the piece and, in other ways, he was simply along for the ride. Towards the end of the performance of "Stroking", still strumming the strings of his instrument, Thurston balanced himself crouched on one knee; he was visible from his side, yet his head and back were turned away from the audience; only the fingers of his left hand, which seldom moved throughout the piece, could be seen wrapped around the foreshortened neck of the guitar. The positively rhythmic, downstroking, linear, pulsating, repetitive, meditative, continuously moving, evocative crescendo and de-crescendo which is the work of art ended on one high treble clef piano note. A distinct, to the point, simple, direct, period.
So, this 45 year old kid with a guitar, this kid, who possesses all the intelligence and innocence that puts his music into the vastness of discovery and who does not "comply with expectations", believes that there is "sort of, kind of" a positive spirituality "even in the conflicted and darker realms of experience". The technical aspects of music making is only the medium for creating music that is "charged with beauty". "Highly spiritual situations can be created through the simplest gestures".
Even when two lovers, each wearing an electric guitar with all the knobs tuned to the highest possible intensity and volume, walk slowly and methodically, jostling their instruments to create reverberations, across a stage to meet physically in the middle of the stage. All that touches are the guitar strings and the sound that is created is the serendipitous, fortuitous, planned "cancellation of overtones and squall of sound". The crash. The mating. A wholly clear, non-academic coital event of communication.
Thurston is nearly seven feet tall. His perspective is wide. He can see where others cannot.