David Shea: “Watching what the fingers wanted to do.” Interview by Innerversitysound


David Shea is an experimental musician, composer and erstwhile academic who has been active in the live and experimental scenes in New York, Europe, Asia and Australia. He has released 28 Albums notably on Tzadik records, Sub Rosa and has a record label Metta Editions which is devoted to re-releases of his work. His most recent release is Piano I (Room40).

Innerversitysound: Piano is, by people who compose music, considered to be the primary instrument of composition. However your technique for this album seems not based on composition but rather improvisation and experimentation. Could you expand a bit on how you approach construction of your piano works?

David Shea: All the works are scored. There is freedom within the score to move. Improvisation informed it but they are primarily compositions. I have written a lot for contemporary classical pianists who are virtuosos who can play virtually anything, which has always allowed me to write very complex music. You use those Stockhausen chops or work on really complex concepts and it was really Lawrence’s idea to say that when you play solo, play very simple things, that are usually more related to cinema. What if you made an entire CD where you were the pianist? And I said, ‘you want 75 minutes of one finger on one key. I think it’s been done a few times’. And he said ‘well rethink it, rethink what you can do physically without sticking nuts and bolts sounds, or electronics or anything. Just sit at the piano and rethink physically what you can do’. So that was really the basis, there was a lot of improvising involved in creating this piece, because I had to rethink what my fingers could do, what my technique could do, what my relationship with the instrument was, without anything other than my technique. And that was very challenging. It took a long time to figure out what it was.

Innerversitysound: You mention in your press work that you have a long history with the piano, but this is not necessarily reflected in your musical output. Was Lawrence English’s suggestion to produce a piano album the only factor in the production of this album and could you expand a bit on your history with the instrument?

David Shea: No that was just the instigation. I think particularly in the eighties when I was working with turntables and cutting up cassette tapes and vocal work and all that, piano was not even on the radar. I had studied for a short period at a conservatory and I was probably in that camp that this was a 19th century instrument and nice as a Musique concrète sounding feel, but not something that I would take on as a composer. And I think when working with classic ensembles and working with classical musicians I had to rethink that. But I had come through the Musique concrète classical music map that really looked at taking on the piano as taking on an icon. Dadaism is about sawing pianos in half not about playing them. It is about planting them in the garden and making a sculpture of them. So I really had to rethink how could I approach the piano without simply mimicking Scriabin, or mimicking Weber, or mimicking Cage or any of those things that I had admired in the piano but didn’t feel that it was my area.

There are piano pieces all through my CDs but they were considered to be another piece of concrete with another tradition, with another history, that I was arranging like it was a block of sound in advance. And here is the advance that has 19th century visual connection and physical connection and it is part of my field of things. So for someone to suggest, ‘Just make it the focal point’, I really had to rethink my compositional process. So that’s really the history of this, to challenge myself by rethinking the compositional process with zero electronics, studio not being a factor, could I sit down in a living room somewhere and with a finger and make all of those interconnections that I had been able to do with a thousand pieces of sampled material, sound libraries, ensembles.

The Quattro Pezzi of Giacinto Scelsci was probably the focal point, listening to his piano because Scelsci’s work was reduced to a single note. Reduced, well that is the wrong word, he explored what one could find in a single note. Because all that information was already in the sound of the note, that if you penetrated that B-flat that he played, over and over again for years on end, he discovered that information was already in the note itself. That there was a counterpoint of the single sound. There were silences and chaos and order and harmonies and melodies and spectrals and all that. So if you could discover all that in a single note, why would you use two? Now I thought that was a good compositional question. Why would you need to use two if you could penetrate your listening, your relationship, to that single sound, that’s the source of composing. I have done that in plenty of pieces where I concentrated on a single note and then microtonal variations of that note and relationships with that note and sympathetic variations of that note. That was really the basis of how would I compose if I sat back down and this was my limited field of what I was able to do. And of course by doing that, Morton Feldman shows up and Cage shows up and Scelsci shows up and Luc Ferrari and all those other characters who have influenced my relationship but the sense that it was improvised was that I had to deal with my own hands and my body and my relationship with the piano – including psychological constraints.

Not studying piano as a child and being around people who lived in Europe and that was the fundamental cornerstone of what composition is and here I am cutting pieces of vinyl and gluing them back together. And even then with the electronics thinking how do I compose with these bits and pieces. Sampling for me was much less about the process of sampling or the concept of appropriation than it was, ‘here’s a way to compose and to construct the ensembles that I am interested in’. I can find a Koto player and a Guqin player and a death metal guitarist and weave all that together as an electronic composition. The notion of sitting down at the piano and working out eleventh chords with flat fives, I have studied deeply in that theory but the approach was that this was just another one of the arsenal of things that create sound. And this was almost the opposite, this was really to immerse myself in the history of piano and but also what I was capable of physically and psychologically.

Innerversitysound: You have moved a great deal away from the electronic experimental scene, and obvious experimental techniques with this album. It has only two tracks, ‘Magnet’ and ‘Trance’ that can be viewed as at least signalling experimental technique in their construction. Why do these track exist here in the album and make a bridge between the suites and the Mancini tributes?

David Shea: Particularly with ‘Magnet’ I am interested in hybrid electronic and traditional acoustic music and I always have been so. When I discovered the magnetic resonator piano, there is a motion detector above the piano keys and it turns your finger actions into voltages and the voltages sustain the strings on top of the strings, and I had done that for quite a while – trying to combine an electronic sustain piano together with finger movements. ‘Magnet’ was really a sense of I’m still playing it, it’s physical, it’s all within the hands but it’s a hybrid between my electronic work and the piano work. I think the same thing with ‘Trance’, the pattern pieces that are in the suite are informed by the hybrid mentality of I am thinking electronically but returning that to electronic playing. That has been a very conscious sense of, I have created a sample piece that then ‘Trance’ became scored from. So I wanted to think how I would create pattern pieces for sequencers. If I was working on an analog synth, this is the sort of pattern, but return it to acoustic playing and come up with the finger techniques that would make that as fluid as possible. So both those pieces are hybrid pieces. One with the electronic and the acoustic and the other with, at least in my mind, a compositional mindset. Of writing electronic acoustic music.

Innerversitysound: Your practice of Buddhism, interest in Taoism, all seem to be elements in your musical practice. How do you conceive of the personal commitments you have and how they interact with the creative commitments? Do the psychological states that are elicited by one influence greatly the direction and content of the other?

David Shea: I think I would start by returning to the example of Giacinto Scelsci’s work. I immersed myself fairly deeply in the practices of martial arts and meditation and the teachings of Bhuddism and the teachings of Taoism and Chinese Chan Buddhism in particular and studied very much the rituals that surrounded those teachings. But I don’t think I would call myself a Buddhist. I follow those practices, those teachings are important but the style of that and bringing the style of that into my work is not nearly as important. So even the previous CD Rituals which is literally based on many Taoist and Buddhist rituals, my interest was in being inspired by those traditions, being influenced by those teachings. Really trying to understand those teachings from their perspective and then sitting down to compose. And that may mean composing without thought, but without thought being primary. Which can be called improvisation or a meditational approach. And others where I am almost physically modelling a new ritual based on an old ritual. There I am trying like in the Sufi ritual where we have the Hafiz poem, I am following the text, so when the implications of the text refer to certain traditions, I leave myself out. I say, ‘this is what I think the text means, lets adopt this tradition.’ And don’t try to synthesise it, just take it how it is and make it part of this network that is the conversation. I am not trying to be oblique about it, the teachings have very direct influence on me, I study them, I give lectures on them, I go to temples, I meditate, I have my daily practice, but I am less comfortable with making an allegiance to a particular type of teaching because I often find that’s divisive and the conversation is divisive and can make people uncomfortable when you have decided that this is much more important than the other. I think what I get primarily, instead of directly, is that there are many types of intelligences from the Bhuddist teachings and that when thought is primary or this particular teaching can be much more important than another then I almost instantaneously reject that teaching. In a sense that once it is codified…, I mean in the beginning of the Tao Ti Ching, the beginning of the text has that ‘The Tao that can be named is not the Tao’. That’s the sense that I mean, it’s not a fear of labels or any of that business, I am happy to say, ok it comes from this, but the influence is the model, is the direct influence.

The notion of an artist being conscious about what they are producing even though there are constructs and there are things that you deal with, it’s that primacy of thought that is part of a multiple set of intelligences, that are kinaesthetic, that are intuitive, that are almost trance induced and there are others that are very conscious and very mathematical and very carefully thought out and it is the equivalence of those. Or at least the interchangeability of those that is important, Scelsci was very adamant that these were coming from another place. That this is not me, that I go into this state and I have perceived it from that end. I am not doubting that but I know that is not the same experience for me I can feel the combination of those things. I made a record many years ago called ‘I’ which came mainly from the teachings of Krishnamurti, and of course there was a pun involved in it because there was not a single sound that I created, it was a completely sampled record. And I thought this clear at least, that the sense of I, I’m in the mix, but I am not the sole source of the creative energy. Here’s a very obvious thing to do, make an entirely sampled record called ‘I’.

Innerversitysound: You have a role as an academic music teacher, can you explain how this role gathered steam from your beginnings. And how the energies between creating and teaching fuel each other?

David Shea: I don’t really teach music. I work for the center for ideas, and the purpose of that center is to create cross discipline courses. To create electives that any student from any discipline can take. And it talks about the connections between the sciences, the arts, architecture, philosophy, all those things. So that is really what I concentrate on. And how I fell into that, this particular role in Melbourne was simply from talking about my work. I have always been a visiting composer and saying this is what my work is exploring and at a certain point when I was coming to Australia I said, I am not interested that much in touring Europe, I am more interested in being in Asia, and Elizabeth Presser who runs the Center for Ideas said ‘you know this is perfect, you can talk about Quantum Physics and God and meditation and this, that and the other and you want, to create courses’. I said, ‘No I hate universities and academics are evil.’ She said, ‘You know you can do what you like to do.’ And I said, ‘Freedom and I get on, sure I will see what I can do’. And I started a course called ‘Complete Total Utter History of the Entire 20th Century’. It was a gag, at some level and it was, so I thought I better take this seriously because I have some sincere students who are interested in this stuff. And I talked about how history occurs. How the writers influence the economists and how the economists influence the musicians and the musicians influence the architects, etc, etc… And I thought really I need to design courses that I feel comfortable with to be able to have the freedom to talk about these kinds of things. Now if music comes up great, I am comfortable about that too. But as far as I was concerned if I talked about music I was going to talk about symatics, I was going to talk about frequency, I was going to talk about pattern, vibration, which could be chaos theory or quantum theory or the rest of it and trying not to set off any new age flares. And you know say the universe is music, you know I mean it, it is not a metaphor and the ears are not for hearing, really I mean it. And trying to be as precise as possible and absolutely to avoid drawing vast conclusions off a small bits of evidence.

If I was to talk about pattern in the universe and someone would say, ‘yes God exists’. Well if there is pattern creation it doesn’t mean that there has to be a creator, so to be careful in that way and could I create a course that would really be practical, in terms of application by looking at how neurochemistry influences meditation. How the dialog between Krishnamurti and David Bohm, one from physics and one from spiritual teachings. What’s in that dialog? I know this is how I compose and its influence on me but I also compose a course. And that was a real challenge, because for me it didn’t feel like even slightly different from sitting down and saying, ‘well how do I arrange these sounds, this experience, this performance, this kind of thing?’ And as a lecturer it was how do I articulate these things that I am working on all the time and practicing all the time and really make ir practical by seeing it from their perspective and making it useful. It’s now called ‘The Secret Life of the Body’ and I did three years of that and there is also masters and PHD levels and I focus on the body but think of the body as a cross roads for all the musicians and when I show something like symatics and the visual shapes when you run sound vibrations through substances, I say ‘music is visual, here’s some proof’. It creates visual patterns, perhaps it’s the source of visual patterns. And those kinds of things, that’s directly working with what I think is composition, the whole of it being the work and I get resentful when someone says ‘hey I haven’t seen you performing as much, do you have time for your own work now that you are doing this teaching, academic kind of thing? All I do is talk about burning the school down. I do get resentful because this is my work, articulating this is something that I do and getting a balance of the outcome is important to me. Having time to perform and compose and all that because institutions, because there is a lot of dancing a lot of dodging and weaving to keep that freedom fresh and challenging. But I don’t see it in any way as being disconnected. When I go to a museum or work on a sound installation or do a performance I always say I am happy to do a talk if that’s useful as well. Because it feels like the same gesture, just a different outcome.

Innerversitysound: Is the old academic saying, that you learn more by teaching, true of the music teaching profession as well?

David Shea: Oh absolutely. Even with challenge to be able to articulate yourself clearly to get those relationships with the community of passionate interested people. That to me is the heart of performance. I mean there is a certain dilemma for every artist but there is a sense that you want to share this and you want to make this work because you want to interact but there is also a strong sense of ‘I will interact to this point but here’s my boundary.’ And what those boundaries are you are dealing with people from multiple countries, backgrounds and all the rest of it and you do want to articulate and communicate. Not that that’s the ideal but if you do want to and how to do that and where to, for me these are fundamental compositional questions. How to set those boundaries. Where can I give this away and where can I protect this. Where can I expose my energy and where can I make sure that I keep it fresh for myself. So I have learnt to add gestures constantly and getting your head spun around completely. But touring I find like that, if you are playing a piece an suddenly, ‘this is genius, I have never heard such magnificent stuff’ and then two nights later you are in a completely different culture or set of expectations and different scenes and it’s ‘what the hell are you doing that for? That’s the worst thing I have ever heard’. How did you see that in the same thing that I saw, that they saw and getting your head spun constantly, if you don’t learn from that you are probably not being very open to the experience? And teaching I find like that every day.

Innerversitysound: I came across a philosopher who made the claim that ‘being open, that’s how your brains spill out’ which is a funny throwaway line, but a true one to some degree. Because you could lose yourself, so to speak, and this losing of yourself can happen in situations of being open to experiences. Which is problematic.

David Shea: I am not a fan of openness in that sense. Or at least not the openness that’s in opposition with specificity. And it’s not just because I am a big Scielsci fan. Why I keep mentioning it is that for someone to discover it…, when I was working with thousands of samples and said ‘hey you can connect this with this’ and Scielsci found that same penetration in a single note. I thought that means that it is probably in the smallest amount of information and the largest. So I have got my head the wrong way around if I think that more material generates more openness. Because the openness would be in opposition to specificity. And one doesn’t exist without the other. They are interwoven with each other. That’s where I am very suspicious with openness. I am even fond of my students of saying ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.’ That’s another throwaway line, but there is a freedom in that, in saying why simply speculate. Be able to measure it. And then they say how do you measure and you say ‘aha’.

Innerversitysound: You have two threads here that are really important, the Dada thread through Musique concrete but also the Krishnamurti thread, which I will just say the Theosophy thread, but also this is the bit about the occult bookshop within your life. Now Dada itself was fairly insane and embraced a lot of obscure and rejected thought around magic and hermetic knowledge. How do you reconcile these views within the contemporary geography of knowledge?

David Shea: Well Theosophy I was going to say reject, but I don’t reject it, but I think what the Theosophical experiment was about, it was about synthesis. It was about bringing together the uncomfortable divisions between religions and saying there is no true god, there is no god higher than truth, there is no religion higher than truth. And that fundamentally is the opposite path than I have taken. Difference is primary. Non Synthesis is primary. Allowing things to be what they are and looking for the connections between them as differences is primary. And I think that is what I got from Krishnamurti in some ways. If you take a lot of absurd nonsense that doesn’t make sense on its own, fusing it into one piece of nonsense doesn’t make it more profound. This was the mantra of his, that truth was a pathless land. So if it has no path, a hundred paths is no better than one. Theosophy I think just said that lets take the best bits of all the paths and find the synthesis in all the sciences, in the philosophy and all of it and come up with one really fantastic path that will become the one world religion, the one world leader. We can stop fighting because we agree on the one that I mean best. Frightening as far as I am concerned. Sick in a way. But you know in the 1890’s there were a lot of those around, there were communist manifestoes and futurist manifestoes and theosophical manifestoes. I think that what the sciences and Krishnamurti and a lot of writings, even mystical writings said was ‘all of this is insane! All of this is pretending that there is a set of manifestoes that can take you to truth’. Now it may be multiple, it may be one, it may be the great dictator, it may be the great open minded guru but all of them really are leading to illusion. So the radical rejection of those things, difference has to be primary and you have to say well what does that have from his perspective.

If someone was to ask me about Crowley’s writings I would say, ‘ok there’s an influence of course, but when you get to the manifesto level, I understand the influence but you know the tao that can be named is not the tao has that same influence’. And that’s Dadaism, if you take absurdism seriously, it becomes more absurd. And that’s the most absurd ting that you can do. That’s where I am much more interested in the relationship with primary texts. I am not so much interested in the five key points of Islam, I would rather just read the Koran. I would rather immerse myself in somebody’s writings, try to understand it from their perspective. Once I can do that then I can do the dance. I can do this curvilinear dance and music is a way of exploring that. Music is a way of giving it tangible form. So yes I think theosophy in many ways even though I have respect for the fact that they respect all of these things. The synthesis is something that I have consciously sought out, even with the samples, the early samples in the nineties, even with the turntable pieces, I barely manipulated onto those sources. I didn’t put digital delay onto them. I wanted them to stay as they were and the role of the composer was to arrange those blocks of sounds to put the styles to be blocks of sounds, histories to be blocks of sounds. Original intention could be a block and also I had to say I am the one doing the arranging so if I don’t have some internal knowledge about who is doing all of this then this is a fairly meaningless exercise of collaging a bunch of stuff. So it was a constant meta gesture and internal search and all of these other things that aren’t quite me.

Innerversitysound: The time you spent learning with John Zorn, or what you learnt through your interactions with Zorn, can you expand on this period of time in your life.

David Shea: I feel like I grew up within his ensembles. He was always an older brother, and in as much as people are giving attention to Zorn now, one thing that’s constantly left out I think is how supportive he is of that community. It’s not just putting out exotic records which are amazing, but he was amazingly supportive when I was 18 or 19 on just the level of respect for your own work. When you are up in front of people just give them the respect of this is what I do. And if they walk out, to hell with them. He put out my first record, Shock Corridor, in 1992. He was always supportive and encouraging. And has been for that whole community of people and the more attention he has gotten he says, ‘well thanks but it is also about this huge community of people, I couldn’t do this without Marc Ribot or Cyro Baptista and all these othere characters. And there is no reason he had to do that because everyone was going ‘hey Zorn, you’re the genius, all these other people are in your camp’. This is the media, this is nonsense.

I have been influenced by all these other teachings and writings and all these other things. This is a community but not just a community of living people, a community of all this stuff, all these French writers, all these mystics and all these experimentalists and we’re a part of that, thank you. No this is my work, thank you. When you get that kind of centered attention, you know it’s coming from almost the opposite place of the music. And I think that’s what I almost got straight away, was that the reason you studied Carl Stalling was because Carl Stalling was a fricking genius. And that structure, event, no transition, event, no transition was what Stockhausen and Stravinsky were running around the world saying we’re geniuses we discovered momentary structure? Well no you didn’t. No it’s not an insult, you didn’t. There was never a sense of being interested in low culture or high culture. This is music, this is visual arts, this is dance. Jack Smith, what is Flaming Creatures? You sit through that movie of Jack Smith’s and you say, this guy is on another planet. These distinctions about whether music is played in a gallery or sound art happens in a museum or on a street corner. They’re part of the piece. They’re not fundamental questions. And that Zorn taught me in five minutes. He just shifted the whole picture and then supported my personal work, I worked in his pieces. I would say Elegy for instance, which I apologise if he hears this, but I think it is his greatest work and not because I am on it but it is something where we sat in the studio hour after hour. Classical players, the guys from Mr Bungle, sound effects people and we really nutted out, minute after minute after minute how you can make that kind of collaborative composition that is clearly John Zorn’s composition. I think he had worked that out previously but I think that it is a masterpiece of how to weave those things, and it’s based on Jean Genet’s plays and that strange film that he made, Un Chant D’Amour.

I could talk for a long time about how influential that period was, but that’s really what I got, I really got that sense of support, that sense of a larger community and that sense that these things were connected and it was up to you to figure out which part of the connections you can arrange for yourself. I was around phenomenal musicians who had phenomenal film knowledge. Zeena Parkins and Willie Weiner and say you know that bit in the 39 steps of Hitchcock, or this happens and the camera does that, that is what I need. And they go ‘yeah, yeah’. So you know, that’s not a question of improvisation or composition, I clearly have a compositional framework but do I need to write it down? Sometimes, and if I do, doesn’t that change the sense of attention and the sense of focus that if we are using a visual memory or a visual part of our brain to say ‘you know the Genet film, well it’s like that but it’s more Hong Kong, with a kind of Ellington shuffle and here’s what I have written so far? Yeah yeah, I got it.’

And when I started working with classical musicians, it’s just an ensemble on a large scale. The early symphonic work, the first and second symphony, I had to rethink that process entirely. Because that whole reference base wasn’t there. Teaching I had to rethink that, I can’t just jump out and go, Cassavetes was talking to Levinas and Levinas was talking to Derrida. Who are these people? Which is great, but I had to rethink how I could be articulate, but I don’t think you figure out how you are going to be articulate and then write the music.

The music is that prcess, that practice every day, every piece, it says, ‘what am I missing? Why do I study Esquivel more than I study Stravinsky?’ Because I immersed myself in Stravinsky for a very long time, but Esquivel is left out of the conversation. He is a master orchestrator of Exotica music. A master orchestrator in the studio. Sure it’s like Mexican Jazz exotica strangeness but if you can see what he did with the medium that he had, your first impulse is not to imitate Esquivel. It is to really be inspired by the relationship with this music. But then to be able to apply it in ways that are valuable to you and what you are trying to achieve. So it’s a really big inspiration and New York was like this all the time. Being broke and being homeless and being a squatter didn’t help, I don’t think it helped. Although it’s always romantic: ‘did the suffering bring you to…? No, No!’ I was always going to do this, I didn’t need the suffering. It was really challenging, but you may know, after 1995 I was that much on tour as I was in New York. So I was almost living on tour. In Europe and then I lived in Brussels, for ten years on and off during that whole period. Then Asia, now Australia. Geographically things were similar, they were the music, I was physically displacing myself and I was musically displacing myself.

Innerversitysound: There is a definite physicality to your work and you have mentioned that for you the physical technique and rigour is a great deal of the work, can you expand on how the physicality of music making informs your musical composition?

David Shea: Well the dance was primary. The kinaesthetic, the keys, the materialness of the piano and what my hand can do, and the length of my fingers and sitting at the thing, and practicing hour after hour. I spent a lot of time practicing, searching, just to discover just exactly what my technique was, on what levels. Jean Philippe Collard who did Book of Scenes with me, was playing some of the works, and said ‘you really play like a composer’. I never knew if that was a compliment. I don’t think it was. So yes I think there was a lot of time of stepping back and listening to myself play. Let’s see where this thing goes, you know you have been playing forever, and I have, I have been playing since I was a kid, but I had very little formal study as you know formal study. But I have been around great parents and when you sit and watch piano, especially in New York, I was around phenomenal pianists. Stephen Drury plays Zorn’s piece ‘Carny’ and no one should be that phenomenal at an instrument. It’s super human. But he also has a super human heart. He’s an incredible person. And I learnt to respect that technique so deeply and the kind of psychoticness of sitting in a small room for eight hours a day and working on your fourth finger to play Schubert flawlessly. Because I can’t and when I listen to Schubert I am blown away by that fourth finger thing that that person perfected.

I have a deep respect for technique which is probably why I didn’t enter into the fray. Because I thought, ‘they have got it’, you know, what can I contribute to the conversation, it’s not going to be that. So again it was Lawrence saying figure out the dance that you have between this thing and you. I know, I have seen you do it on stage and you have worked with keyboards forever. So what would the relationship be about, so maybe dance is the best way to explain. But really it was also about sitting back, watching and listening. And I don’t want to be mystical, even slightly about this, but watching what the fingers wanted to do. What the hands wanted to do, where my body wanted to go. And then saying, well ok, set that into a piece. If I sit with pattern pattern pieces I might start with something quite artificial. A pattern in two in the left hand and a pattern in three in the right hand. After a few cycles they co-exist as four, five, six, but that disappears as I start dancing with it.

But I wouldn’t have got to the dance without the composition or the technique. So the physicality became primary here instead of the composition or the technique. That’s maybe why I didn’t answer the improvisation/composition question, because all of them were set out to be composed pieces. But I kind of danced through the process, the physicality became more primary than even the outcome. But when we say physicality, the influence of Morton Feldman, and his piano works, is also to not eliminate but to simply sit back and listen to what happens. That note says ‘aha, listen to me, I need this thing to follow’. Then physicality dances in that direction. And the stillness that Feldman has at his piano was a big influence and then the physical exploration of a single set of notes or a single note. I think Luc Ferrari had that very deep, that sense of listening and dancing with what you find. Formalising it and then throwing away the formality and then you have a piece. That was the process in almost every work except in the Mancini and that was just because I love Mancini.

Innerversitysound: I was going to ask you, ‘Why Mancini?’

David Shea: Again, this is a Zorn influence too, in that, I loved Mancini growing up, but I didn’t see him as someone who spent hours and hours studying. Zorn said, ‘have you listened to his orchestration.’ I didn’t think I had and nothing was going to be the same after that. And my love of film music and my sense of respect for Bernard Herrmann, George Delerue, Jerry Goldsmith and many different film composers. Takemitsu is someone I talk about quite a bit in terms of his film music because he was someone who would sit with a director, look very deeply at the image and say, ‘you know, I am not too sure that you need music. Why don’t we take the sound of breaking sticks and that will be your soundtrack’. Because for him the sense of the whole came first and then the musical application he would adapt and boy could he adapt. He could write Mahler’s sixth symphony if he needed to, or he could see that the breaking of the sticks was important. It wasn’t a question about being experimental. It was a question about what the story needed and how to convey the story to the listener and the relationship of the director and the relationship of the actors with can music express something that the sound effects, the dialogue, the image cannot. Can we get into the psychological inner life of the character? All of that, he is using that in a musical outcome. That was really influential, I didn’t go I was going to become a film composer, but it was almost inevitable that I would be. Or some film maker would say ‘aha this seems to be influenced by Morricone’ and all these other things. And so if I had a good relationship with a director I would work in film. I love doing it when I have that kind of relationship.

But Morricone wouldn’t have written even the Sergio Leone films without the essential relationship with Sergio Leone. Blake Edwards gave Mancini that freedom to say ‘I love you, do your thing’. They knew there was a mutual respect, Nina Rota with Fellini, you can’t think of Fellini’s films without Nina Rota, Hermann/Hitchcock and on and on. When you have that sense of ‘I don’t understand music, the difference, I’m a film maker, but I know you are expressing something that looks at the whole of the project.’ That for me was musically influential. How do I write pieces like that, if it’s not a question of having images, if it’s not a question of being in this medium or that medium, could you return that to a concert stage. Could you take that whole mosaic of stuff and return that to a single piano piece. I don’t know, I just sit down at the piano and check it out. So that’s a lot of the process. The gesamtkunstwerk impulse of bringing together all the art forms, the synesthetic, modern, you know for me it’s just another stream. At some points, at Wagner, it is a megalomania, in that you assume that all of them are separate. ‘Oh wow this is the vastly different world of dancing and painting and chemistry and literature but I bring them together. I have synthesised these into a corporeal thing.’ But that’s not that cleaver, they are together, what’s the actual work.

Innerversitysound: Ok you are clearly going to this form of holism.

David Shea: Yes but holism that is not doing battle with specificity. That’s what I am trying to get at. That’s why I keep going back to the single note. Because I don’t think that it is a competition. Zorn did this in a very clear way. ‘If this is a jazz project, this is a jazz project’. We play this at jazz festivals, if this is a classical project I am doing it with an orchestra, I am going to work on all sorts of things that work with classical musicians. I didn’t follow that path, I wanted to do this as a single piece.

Innerversitysound: So to an extent you can say you learn a specific language and you know how to speak in that language but you know all these other languages and can bring them in by speaking in a meta language.

David Shea: I do that less because I am interested in layering these languages and trying to find out how they have interested each other and where they meet and where they fight. So I would even take procedures like an aleatory chance procedure and put that on top of something fully composed with someone improvising on the track below. For instance if you look at the almost absurd complexity of Brain Ferneyhough, I was playing some of Ferneyhough’s music for some of the students and they said ‘but this sounds like free jazz’. Well that is a different way of looking at it. He doesn’t want that improvised, relaxed nature, I don’t think. It’s that incredible complexity and absorbing your head into counting and putting the seven inside of the five, inside of the three and sweating blood, to be able to play this really complex outcome. Free jazz is almost the opposite. You want to be in this otherworldly state where you are improvising and your habits and your structures.

david shea web2 2014

Innerversitysound: The most interesting free jazz people were the ones who had masses of structure before they even started destroying it, before they started experimenting. They were able to master the techniques, they had a whole range of musical languages to speak and freedom was just the ability to go beyond the limitations of the structures and stretch the boundaries.

David Shea: And give up those structures. You not only have to shift your technique but shift your state of mind. And I think this is something that Derek Bailey gave the world. Of the million tings he gave the world, he gave me my love of test cricket, which was one of them. When I talk to him about free improvisation he says this is the way to work it out. Someone makes a sound and you make up your mind what is going to happen. It’s not really a question of freedom or lack of freedom. It’s really, ‘we don’t need to discuss this because music is the discussion’. Or the ignoring each other or the layering or whatever you want to call it. Zorn would probably say he got a lot of that from Derek as well, this is why free improvisation became so important. Of course in New York Sunday’s at PS122 we have dancers and musicians and no musician had to dance or no dancer had to make sounds. We were exploring what happens once we put something into this space. I felt that that was coming out of classical music, the compositional stuff, and I said ‘well this is the fundamentals of composition. How do we put this together with this?’

Innerversitysound: You have been talking before about cutups of records, sort of like Christian Marclay does, which is also similar in tradition to Burroughs, to what a whole lot of people do with cutups to elicit a kind of randomness and to find a pattern after obscure things happen. Yet turntabalists from the tradition of hip hop and dance find it much easier to connect with audiences than the academic aspects of music production. The free and easy way they link up with audiences seems to be a distinctly positive responsiveness. Why do you think there is this gap in audience response?

David Shea: Well I can tell you my experience, in the early 90’s I played clubs as a dj, so I did a lot of hip-hop and I did a lot of house, early techno and all sorts of things. I thought it was a fantastic balance. Because here I was really focussed on an audience, really focussed on how long does this thing need to go on to be what it is. ‘It’s really fast and active so I think it should be short…this needs time to develop and it’s a minimal process, lets do that.’ And I was really responsive to the audience. And the next night I could go to an improv thing and scratch the hell out of these things and make a horrible noise and if somebody walked out I would be like ‘good riddance’. I thought it was an interesting balance. The dj’s who I worked with who were really sharp didn’t seem all that different to me than what the improvisers were. Tony Humphries or Frankie Knuckles, I would see those guys dj House, they were not concerned about whether the audience approved of them or not, but they always considered the dance floor. Because that was part of the work. And I thought, ‘this isn’t a musical thing is it? These guys are orchestrating a whole scene. These guys are epic.

Ok there are lights, they are not necessarily deciding on, but they know what music choices to make when that light thing is doing that thing and that’s really what I got out of the dj’s. There is an article you might look back on, a New York Times article, called ‘The Dj as Artist’. Like the art world discovered, ‘whoah dj’s do this thing’, my hands are there beating on a record and they talk about Christian Marclay and visual art and they talk about dj Red Alert and the early hip hop guys. From my perspective they miss the point. Because again it was the confluence of high and low art, the audience and the ivory tower. But they miss the point, that dj’s are exploring the same thing that contemporary classical people are exploring. They just have a different theatre. They just don’t live in the same neighbourhoods. They don’t socially mix.

Innerversitysound: Their paths do cross.

David Shea: Now especially. But they did less in the eighties. For me that balance that I am talking about became a bit schizophrenic. I had this scene that was totally disconnected from this other scene and they usually disliked each other intensely. I thought ‘I have to start writing pieces like this, I have got to start figuring out what the connection is for myself and also have to work out if all this stuff is dealing with this and that and the other, I had better prove it. I had better start making some practical outcomes’. So it’s been both disappointing and heartening to see that dance music and all this techno stuff has gone down the path of being overrated and underrated at the same time. The genius status of the dj, it seems more like it is that post-modern obsession with let’s bring the low and the high together and I just don’t share that.

Innerversitysound: I have noticed that some of the people who are quite influential in the nineties electronic scenes have moved very strongly towards classical scenes. There are certain aspects of post-modernism that interacts with new ageism, which is something people are now steering away from.

David Shea: Yes of course. It makes it difficult when I am doing these lectures. If I do want to talk about meditation in a very serious way, in a practical way. I have a standard joke and this works almost every time, especially when I am talking about Chinese medicine or Auryedic medicine, because there is always someone who feels a little uncomfortable who says this sounds a little mystical. I say ‘look if I walk out of this building and I get hit by a tram after this lecture, no-one chant over me. No aroma therapy. Get me a surgeon. God bless western medicine.’ I do that to diffuse any of the tension because this is interesting, I am not a huge George Harrison fan but I saw that Scorsese film recently and there was an interesting interview with him, where someone was in a very lovely suit who said, ‘this is fantastic that you are getting into this esoteric material and this Asian philosophy and you are studying all this. This is wonderfully mystical of you.’ And he looks at him and says ‘it’s just our ignorance that makes us think it is mystical’, like any Hindu student would right? He said ‘this is our actual state of being. To mystify it is the same thing as to dismiss it.’

That seemed interesting to me because when I talked about the body being the hearing mechanism, not just the ears. Whether multi-sensory interaction is actually our interaction. The first thing I want to avoid is the mysticism, is the esoteric nature of it, is the sense that it is out of reach, that it is secret knowledge – that only I can know this and I am handing it down to the young people of today. My sense is I am searching this out and so are a lot of other people and this is what I like about the 21st century, is the dialog seem to be on. The scientists seem to be taking that stuff seriously and the mystical folks are saying, scientists aren’t as closed as we thought they were. It’s that dialog that really interests me. I want to take a side step from the new age or the esoteric. I am happy to talk about patterns in the universe, but when someone says, there is a creator, ‘ok you think that’. Near death is another example, I do talks on near death experiences. My interest is not in proving that there are white lights or that Grand-mother brought me to the other side. People believe that, they do, and maybe they are right. But I am interested in when we define death, as being right in front of us, your dead, that’s it. And then somehow they come back from that experience and say, ‘I had a conscious experience’. How could a dead brain produce a conscious experience? There could be a million explanations. There are lots of theories, quantum biology and everything else. But it is interesting, and that for me is an inroads to start to talk about how we can be conscious and where is the line between life and death. But hey, that sounds like the Hindu’s, life and death are not that separate and on and on and on. But it’s not about necessarily the near death experience.

There is a Sub Rosa record that we made for Gilles Deleuze, (Folds and Rhizome for Gilles Deleuze), because a lot of us had been influenced by Gilles Deleuze. And it was the funniest encounter because Guy Marc Hiniat who is one of the people who run Sub Rosa records, was a student of Deleuze. And so he would visit him in the hospital every once in a while and would say, ‘here are some of the young electronic guys, they read your stuff’. And he was just shocked beyond belief and he loved it. So we made him a present and was a thanks. There was nothing profound about it. By the time we finished the compilation, he had committed suicide. So it became the worst possible thing that it could be which was a memorial death record. And of course everybody else in the world came out with their memorial death record. And then we did another record where we all remixed everybody else’s records in a Deleuzian way. It was a shame in a way because it was exactly what we had been discussing. No-one had been saying ‘I read your text, I am modelling my piece on your text. Here is a philosophical outcome in modern electronic music.’ It was just thanks, thanks for being an influence, thanks for taking on to this stuff, I don’t know if I understand your work, maybe I do.

There is an interview that they did, ‘Mille Gille’, or something like that, they came to New York and interviewed me and a whole bunch of different artists who were influenced by these kinds of writings and everybody had a different take on that. You could tell that death is the only one career move anyway. That some of them that went, this will help, I read a book once. And they clearly hadn’t read the writings, whether they were bright or stupid, they clearly had not read the writings. And some of them were deeply immersed in it and went ‘wow what an amazing outcome.’ It’s an interesting one to go and look at because there is still that dilemma and this is why I side stepped the Buddhist questions, ‘you know I am not sitting in lotus position with oranges in my hands while I am preforming’. Why would I do that? That’s cultural in the first place, for some people that is cultural, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be a direct relationship between the influence of primary teachings and my outcome. I think Elegy, to go back to the Zorn example, I think he was even loath to put, ‘this is influenced by Genet’s film’. Because he got so fed up with people going ‘what has this got to do with Genet. Genet is more like this’ and would give him their interpretation. He went ‘Let’s call it Elegy’. All of that influence is in there but it is not primary. Sure it’s not primary, it’s a Zorn piece. It doesn’t matter if I have twenty hours on the turntable and he says ‘do your piece’ and I do something. It’s his piece. And what his means is usually different than what the interviews generally tend to mean, ‘you are the source of your creativity, you are the sole one, you have the direct pipeline to the infinite creation and I am going to interview you and you are going to be a star’. That kind of culture doesn’t match what the music is, it’s just kind of inappropriate.

Innerversitysound: It’s more about the interviewer and their concept of themselves.

David Shea: And how can you not talk about philosophy when it comes down to the concept of the self. But you don’t have to talk about that in philosophical terms. You could say, these guys have a very different sense of individuality than I do, heres my CD ‘I’, this is closer to my sense of what I say when I say ‘I’. I am comfortable with saying ‘I’. I don’t have to write it in not a capital letter or dissolve it or claim to be the reincarnation of anything. I am reincarnated anyway you know. You know the laws of thermodynamics, nothings created or destroyed. I am sure that I am star stuff. ‘Groovy man’. And this is the mysticism again. If somebody explains to me the laws of light reflection and refraction and everything else, I still might wake up in the morning and go, ‘wow the sky is really blue, and that’s really magical’. It doesn’t have to be magic to be magical.

Innerversitysound: I suppose that’s the thing about physics, learning that we see that the sky is blue but it’s not really blue and learning about physical aspects of the world which we perceive and our perceptions are not reflections of physical reality. Once you open that Cartesian puzzle, that your senses deceive you constantly, you actually have to get into abstract states of mind to try to work out what’s there. Then consequently to do mental work to see beyond the surface of the phenomena is really important.

David Shea:
And it is really interesting to be around people who are going through that. ‘How are you dealing with that? What you are a tap dancer?’ What’s that about? You go back to the studio and you go ‘what am I going to do with this I have got tap dancers in my life that are telling me this thing’. And it’s a blast, it’s not that you are seeking out constant learning, it’s just that you begin to understand mechanisms of learning. If I find out that the piano record was influenced by some aspect of my hypothalamus, that had been overactive because of me standing under power lines. I go, ‘great’, but that does not explain anything to me. That simply looks at immaterial mechanisms. Which is great. I find it great when people talk about the neuroscience of creativity. But I am much more interested in listening to music. Again this is what I do with the teachings, I will bring in a neurochemist, who will say, ‘I am the expert, here is what it’s about.’ And then in the tutorial I can say, well there are some assumptions that he is making. That is the picture of what the physical sciences is, lets unpack that.

Innerversitysound: Once you start tackling your physical state and you start to examine quite carefully what your mental dispositions are, your genetic structure and once you start accommodating deficiencies and you start attending to them the rest of your conceptual world comes alive. So attending very carefully to our biological selves, to a physical sciences understanding of who we are, has a strong effect on our consciousness.

David Shea: I’m with you on that, I think I am talking about the practical sides of the course. If I can bring in the expert who says attend to your brain because it is all brain, because everything is brain and the whole universe is brain and then Master Lu comes in and we are doing Tai Chi and it’s all energy. Then I almost disappear from the picture. How does this work, are all of these things true? And then we get real engagement. It’s almost a tactic, not a cold tactic, but to say that these things exist side by side. Don’t trust any of them. And don’t trust me when I say don’t trust them. Look at the assumptions that are being made. I was talking about the use of stochastic methods on the stock market and someone, who was Indian said ‘well this would never work in India’. And so we started talking about doing business in India. Why it’s insane and everyone goes crazy when they do business in India. I have seen talks on this before. I think if you have a linear sense of life and death, I am born at point A, I live my life, it’s spectacular, I’m fabulous and rich and a superstar and then I die at point B, your logic and your mythological structure is going to be point A to point B. Now the Indians don’t have this. Reincarnation is woven into the fabric, so logic is different. It’s a longer sense of what life is and cyclical. It repeats over and over again, so the logic is cyclical. If you come in with a one life philosophy and impose it on top of a reincarnation belief system, you get conflict. And you get bad business. If you understand that reincarnation and the Upanishads and the Vedas are woven into the fabric of the society. Then understanding mythic structure becomes essential to commerce.

And right now you say mythic structure is a lot of weird dancers, musicians and artists doing this and business is just people in suits doing this. It is simply not true and here is some evidence. If there isn’t a conversation about some of the fundamental forms that underlie the art forms, for instance with Chinese sculpture: A few years ago I took some students to a Chinese sculpture exhibition at the NGV. Some of them said, well it’s charming but it just seems unfinished and wrong. Then I realised, this is just a question of ‘I like this, I dislike this’, realism is of course the ideal in art and the Chinese just haven’t got it together. And I thought, no I have got to start somewhere else. I have got to start with the uncarved block. Because the uncarved block is the ideal for the Chinese artist. The raw unfinished thing is perfect. And your role as a sculptor is not to screw it up, is to have some relationship with it. But it is already perfect. Once you get that, you don’t have to agree with it, you can say you love it, you hate it, but if you don’t get it, I think that it becomes a bit of a western aesthetic imposition. Did they know about vanishing point perspective? Yes they did. Why would realism be a better way of going about an aesthetic experience? You have got this whole incredible system. You are sitting here with rulers and creating scientific vanishing points and the Chinese and the Japanese were aware of renaissance art. They had contact, they just weren’t all that interested. I think when you get that, the fluidity of working out your own opinions becomes kind of more about the dialog.

Piano I by David Shea is available from Room 40.


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