Tom Krumpak has exhibited internationally since 1976. He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California State University Long Beach and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art institute. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at California State University, Long Beach since 1983.
This conversation took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. (Part 2 can be found here.)
Glenn Bach: I was going to start with the studio in Mar Vista, but since we’re here in your office at Cal State, let’s start here. Let’s talk about the office, the second floor of the FA4 building. How long have you been here? How has being here affected your work as an educator and a painter in Los Angeles?
Tom Krumpak: Well, I’ve been at Cal State Long Beach for thirty-one years, and, in terms of credited time, probably longer than that, because I was here first as an MFA student. I got my MFA degree, and then I left and taught, as you know, at a bunch of different places. UC Santa Barbara, Art Center College of Design, in England at Plymouth College of Art and Design. I taught at Skidmore in New York, where we taught together that summer as part of the Summer Six program. And I’ve lectured at many, many other universities. But, I have tenure here, and this is my thirty-first year. So, that’s a lot of time to cover.
Bach: And you’ve been in this office for…
Krumpak: Actually, I was in an office around the corner and down the hall for a while when I first got here, and then I moved into this office with John de Heras, who was my officemate and absolutely one of my very best friends, and a special person on the planet. And who I’m still very good friends with. I just saw him yesterday, as a matter of fact. And, so, I’ve been in this office for probably fifteen years. I’m sitting in his old chair right now [laughs].
Bach: [laughs]. Because when he retired, you took over the combination of the two offices, because you were in the front…
Krumpak: I was in the front and he was in the back with the window. He was the window guy. One of the great things about being here with John was that when we had to go to faculty meetings or a variety of meetings across the campus—and they were completely absurd— we’d come back to the office with a double cappuccino and a pastry and slam the door and go, “Oh, my god!” [laughs]
Bach: [laughs] “Can you believe that?”
Krumpak: We’d laugh and see the absurdity of much of it. So, I would say that in my time with him, over many years, I don’t think we ever had one serious disagreement. And it’s not because we always saw things the same, but because he was just a fantastic person to be around. Creative, smart, compassionate to his students. He is just a great guy. So, this office has good memories in that way, for sure.
As you can see sitting here, we’re surrounded by almost every imaginable art-related thing on the planet. There are stacks of books, of course, which are laying in the wrong direction, but I know where everything is, sort of. There are paintings from past and present, and the beginning stretcher bars for future. Tons of equipment, rolling carts with sound systems on them, which I roll into my classes. I never do a class without music.
There are carts with slide projectors, which is very analog [laughs]. And there’s a laptop that I use, badly, to do PowerPoint lectures. There’s music, albums, tons of CDs. Every drawer you pull out has hundreds of CDs. Drawers of student work from the past or exhibitions that I’ve mounted for students. There are paintings, drawings, framed drawings of Chinatown. Which, by the way, I’ll be taking students out to photograph this Saturday in downtown again.
Bach: Oh, great. Nice.
Krumpak: So that tradition continues, and from those photographs, you know, they make these drawings or paintings or whatever. There are bags at our feet that look like they are not sorted out, but in fact they are. They are all different lectures, not for classes here, but lectures that I present at other universities. Sometimes on my work, but mostly on the work of contemporary artists I’m interested in. And, those are often made into PowerPoint talks with soundtracks, the whole kit and kaboodle.
Bach: That whole process has changed, right, because in the past when you were building a lecture on artists, you would collect slides.
Krumpak. Right. Totally.
Bach: And you would have these carousels, and you would go through and shuffle the order, and these stacks of carousels would be your lecture. It was this physical, hands-on, curated selection of images, but now artists don’t really send you slides anymore. They send you a jpeg or a link to a series of images.
Bach: So, it’s probably changed the mechanics of how you put a lecture together, but not really the spirit?
Krumpak: Well, no, I think it makes it all very different. I do still have stacks of lectures in carousels, but they aren’t static, they still keep changing, because we do still have hard-copy slides here [at CSULB]. But I don’t get slides from other artists anymore. Those are lectures that I’ve changed depending on what I’m trying to get to, within the greater idea of what’s in that carousel, but it is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. I like the manual quality of the slide projector. That’s why I still use them a lot, and it calls attention to the work…if the quality of the image is okay. The students are so wigged out by seeing a slide projector that it makes them wake up a little bit.
Krumpak: But, it does change it in the sense that I always felt I could arrive with a backup projector anywhere and I could make a presentation happen. But now, with the laptop, because I’m not that electronically savvy or motivated, and with the equipment that’s on location, with the projector, the sound system…no matter how tricked out or complex they are, they often seem to fail. So, you have to be prepared to do a lecture without any visuals. Which I have done. That’s something interesting to work towards: how to do a visual art lecture with no visuals and for people who don’t know the material. You really have to be the song and dance man, on stage, when you do that. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not…
Krumpak: …depending on the audience. So, that does change it, because the certainty of being able to really just hit it. I like the set up. I just like the mechanics of it.
Bach: And the planning process itself, of talking to artists, doing studio visits. “Hey, send me a half dozen images, I’m putting a lecture together and I’d love to take you to coffee and see your studio…”
Bach: That process was a way for you to really, first of all, meet a bunch of great people and great artists, but also to explore these cities in different ways.
Bach: Because you’re not just setting out and wandering the streets and going to a museum or whatever. You’re making these concerted stops in Long Island City or wherever. Because of that you make these plans. “If I’m going to Long Island City, I’m going to stop in this cafe before and grab a cappuccino…”
Bach: So, it becomes a different way of mapping…
Krumpak: Totally. I often think about the process of forecasting, especially with images, and what that does to the final experience the person has of the artwork. For instance, everyone wants me to send out electronic images, which is easy and fast, and I can do that, but then they see the image and then the question is, “Is there a need to see the painting?” People are so geared towards receiving an image now, and when it sits in their house electronically, on their computer, they feel that they own it. And, in fact, they do own the image. They can then disperse it to others. I’ve sent images confidentially, and all of a sudden they’re on Facebook and a million people are looking at them. When I send images for exhibitions, often the exhibition space will put those images online for an upcoming show. So that the people who go to that website, yes, they get to see your work, and I guess that’s a good thing, but then they come to the show, and the opening, in a way, is a kind of strangely deflated or morphed creature, because they go, “Oh, yeah, that looks just like the image that I saw online. That’s really a great painting,” instead of just, “That’s really a great painting.”
Krumpak: When you’re talking to students, too, because they’re so full of images now from Instagram or whatever, they’re not impressed by images. So, even if it’s not the real thing, when you show them an electronic image in a lecture, it’s like, “Oh, it’s another electronic image.” It could be a picture of somebody skateboarding that they took yesterday, and they’re just as interested in that painting image or that skateboard image, or if they’re just shooting randomly. In other words, it has deflated or stolen the ability to decipher and appreciate images because they’re so readily available. That makes teaching really, really hard, because the students’ attention spans are a lot shorter, and the way they approach knowledge in image form has changed a lot, too. So, instead of feeling that you’re giving them something unique or special in a classroom lecture, you’re just giving them some other image.
Krumpak: You really have to deal with it. It’s a funny thing. It’s affected the art world. It’s affected the way people see your hard copy, real paintings, that you spent a year painting. It’s affected the way you teach, because there is just a stream of stuff now, and people are just sampling it. So, you’re just a fish going upstream. Just like everybody else.
Bach: How do you, as an educator, as an artist talking to other artists, and to young artists, how do you get them excited about the primacy of the image? Whether it’s a painting or an installation or a sculpture, the real thing, how do you get them talking about that?
Krumpak: I think you have to be peripheral. Right? Because, if you go right down the middle, they don’t pay attention to it. When I’m doing a lecture, or I’m in the studio class where it’s a hands-on “doing” class, I show them something that I think houses the ideas or the theories that I want them to learn. I’m trying to use the image, then, as a kind of prop that we can work through. It’s not about the image any more, as much as working through it, a vehicle for me to explain the ideas that I want them to learn and incorporate in their artwork. You have to constantly bolster young art students with the idea that their own individualism is the ultimate goal, but that they also need an array of tools in their tool belt to be able to express their individuation. I really don’t think that many people even talk to them about that. Not many broach that notion, but I do. It’s constantly a kind of ping pong about this image or that artist’s work that houses these ideas. This is part of the process that they use to mature and to create their image. We’re using the image as a mirror and going behind it, and then pouring that knowledge back into the individual student and trying to bump up their integrity and their feelings about expressing themselves. That’s really tough for some students. It’s a confrontation, because they’re coming out of all sorts of past history of education where they’re told exactly what to do. Told how to be a good person, and how to succeed in this particular class under these circumstances. And I’m telling them that I have no interest in dominating them in the classroom whatsoever. But, I am interested in having them access quality material, and that they’re probably a lot more capable of housing that and understanding that than they probably think they are. I try to create, with the music, as you know, and visuals or monitors with films playing in the classroom, a contextualized portable environment of sight and sound that allows them to let down their defenses a little bit. I’ll even talk about the difficulty of using certain art materials for a particular project, and that I understand how difficult it is. The risk and value of trying something new in public, of sitting in a classroom with other people, and screwing up. I have to tell them that 90% of this learning mode is about screwing up, and it’s the only way toward unique results. But, for them, the idea of unique, or innovative, or singular voice, or a kind of compassionate curiosity with what they’re doing, is, for whatever reason—no guilt assigned to any particular sector here—it’s just not a discussion they’re having with themselves or with other people in quite that way. I grew up in a time when there were defined heroes you could find in the world of art. Maybe you’ve seen their work at the Whitney or any other great museum, and you said, “That’s what I want to be.” And the baggage with wanting to be an artist was to learn the lifestyle that went along with that, and in turn, the making of the work meant that you were sincere and genuine. Time in. But, I don’t see that people are interested in that model now. They may be interested in celebrity, or they may be interested in one artist over another artist because of personal bias or interest or style or whatever, but I don’t see them wanting to understand where that person came from or what the role of an artist is and how one should proceed to build the “Frankenstein” of themselves.
Krumpak: They don’t want to stitch together parts and assume anything, so I think it’s just a generational shift.
Bach: They’re not really thinking about their practice in the context of lifestyle, or in the context of where they are.
Bach: The activity of making art as an intellectual, creative practice grounded in communication with other communities, other traditions, other places. We were free to create our own tradition through our community, through our peers, through our mentors. I think part of it is a natural aspect of going to classes together, going to openings and that whole thing, but who knows, I’m not that age anymore, so I don’t know what they think of community and what it means to embody the lifestyle of the artist or creative person.
Krumpak: I think the environment has flat-lined. Nothing pops up as more desirable than anything else. They know what hurts, and what causes pain for them, and they avoid it. Beyond that, I think that everything has an equality to it. When I was younger and playing rock and roll, before I was a full-time painter and educator…you were in a band, and you were loyal to that band, and that band either made it, or you went down the tubes. So, you would quit and start a new band with other people, or with some members from the old band, and then you were loyal to that band. I’m not talking about rich and famous. I’m talking about real musicians playing rock and roll. Playing club dates, bar dates, going into the studio to record, and that’s not happening either. There’s no loyalty, people are in for four or five dates, or the band can go a month without a practice, and then they start practicing two weeks before their next gig, and everyone is okay with that. We would have never housed ourselves in more than one band at a time. That would have been so bad. And if you weren’t practicing at least three or four nights a week with your band, you weren’t a real musician. So it’s that kind of thing in a weird way that I’m talking about. There just isn’t that hands-on attachment to the role. Furthermore, students don’t really know whether their education is pointing them towards a career as a visual artist or becoming any kind of expressive, creative person. They think it does, and they can’t think of anything else that would replace it. They’re going through it with best intentions. But they’re not really going to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that it’s going to aim them toward real success. It might, and they’re young, and what else are they going to do? I think it’s smarter and it’s better that they do it, but I was just dumb enough in my youth to think that my education was preparing me for a successful, creative life, you know? And I think that it did. But now I don’t really know whether it does, and whether or not there is any direct connection. It may just be a kind of simultaneous…two things that are in same ballpark that may contribute or may not. And I think they understand that. It changes the dynamic.
Bach: But, as an educator you still have to keep plugging away and try to get them to…for instance, the Chinatown project. As an educator, you have these assignments, or these approaches, these tools to get students to think about making work by translating their experience into practice. And sometimes, it’s a new idea you have, and other times it’s a very ritualized thing. And the Chinatown project was one of things that you had been doing for a while. I remember doing it, and remember seeing the postcards you would make with a group of students ten years after I’d graduated. There’s this beauty to this sort of project where you turning again and again to this rich source in Chinatown, a very rich source of visual and sensory data. It’s a perfect assignment, because it gets them to spend time in a place that they may not have been to before, or may not have spent time critically in that space, and you get them to slow down and spend some time in this place, and then come back to the studio with the raw material that they’ve collected and make something from that. It gets them to make those connections about their art’s relation to that place.
Krumpak: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s a good example of how…people are amazingly parochial. They may come here to Los Angeles from everywhere on the planet, but they’re amazingly parochial once they get here. They really don’t have the knowledge, the hands-on knowledge, of a place that’s ten miles away. They literally don’t. They live within five miles of the school, perhaps, but they don’t have experiential knowledge, and there’s nobody telling them that they should. Or, there’s nobody telling them, “Look, I’m going to take your hand and make sure that you can experience this thing without a lot of trauma. But we are definitely going to put our feet on the ground. We’re going to smell the air. We’re going to touch the walls. We’re going to go in the shops. We’re going to listen to the language. We’re going to try to understand the cadence and look at the condition of light, realize that there are certain colors occurring in one part of town versus another part of town. What is the indigenous palette of a place? How do we become aware of different things that are already obvious to the person who is really looking or hearing? And the things that are un-obvious, to come up and meet it with our sense of self awareness so that we can use it as an artist.” Whether it’s Chinatown or Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., or whether it’s the new, very hip Spring Street scene that is happening, or whether it’s MOCA‘s stamp on J-Town, or myriads of other kinds of places, churches, meditation spaces, all that kind of stuff we find in downtown L.A. The idea is to get young artists on the ground, to the firsthand experience. Then, to find a way to document that experience through photographs, or by walking around with tape recorders and creating soundtracks, or through discussions and dialogues at particular lively corners and locations so that the peripheral noise invades it. We’ve done all sorts of things to capture the sensory apparatus. All of it is designed to get them to realize that there is more information, more ideas, and more everything that you can possibly, possibly, possibly need or use to make their artwork, or to make their life exciting, and therefore, become better contributors to the world around them, not in the Catholic sense, but in terms of aliveness.
That’s another part of this that you brought up before…in the teaching of art-related stuff now, I never try to achieve one thing in an assignment. It’s always a bundled experience. A guided, bundled experience with room for a singular voice, because I think everything has to be wraparound now. The idea of being didactic and singular in a learning experience is over. You have to cause the mash-up to happen, in various ways and not in the same way. So, whether it’s taking them to a location or bombarding them with sight and sound in the classroom, or meeting people who have been your past students, for instance, for a beer and having a discussion about their career, and about your career, their youth and your age. And we can laugh about it, but sincerely enjoying spending time together is part of the ongoing education. Jan and I have been very lucky in that we have so many past students that are very good friends.
Krumpak: I see students all the time, for coffee, for beer. I get a call or an email, “I’d like to see you; I’ve been thinking about you or something you said.” The painting show I have up now in Santa Monica [Built & Placed] was curated by a former student of mine [Jesse Benson], right? I think twelve years ago, and now he’s a curator, an incredible painter and teacher. And it came out of the blue. “I’ve been thinking about your work for a long time now, I have a spot, and I want to show your work.” The generational turnover and the transition between them being young and your student, and then being older and being your student and then not being your student anymore, then realizing that you’re both students for each other? That’s what it’s really about. Then eventually working together. So, that is great. That’s a great thing.
Bach: This is something that I’ve always known to be true about you—and it may not be true for other people—is that there is really no demarcation between who you are as a painter, as a person, as an educator, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a cafe goer…
Bach: …as a traveler…it’s all a mix that you’re constantly adjusting and mixing and tweaking. It’s like you have a big mixing board and you’re making these adjustments and you’re like, “I’m going turn it up here on the educator part and I’m really going to get my students to talk and then I’ll dial it back down, I’ll go home and just chill out and watch a film and drink some brandy, and then the next day, I’m really going to spend some time in the studio. But, there isn’t a hard demarcation where this begins and this ends. To me, that was something I picked up on very early when I first started here. My first class with you was Intermediate Drawing, because I transferred [from Ventura College], so I already had all of the foundation classes…
Krumpak: Yes, [ART] 381.
Bach: With the big charcoal drawings where you subtract charcoal with an eraser.
Krumpak: I remember your drawing.
Bach: Because of the environment that you created in your classroom and the discussions we had, I knew right away that you were someone who was going to play an important role in my life and in my career as an artist. For me, the thing that has always stuck with me, and that I can point in all of my work, was your way of connecting artistic practice and expression to the place that you’re in, specifically something as simple as taking a shape from the environment and using that as a starting point in the work. So, you go and you find a circle or a quatrefoil in the landscape and you trace it, and you take that tracing and you transfer it to the drawing and that becomes an initial shape that you work with. That simple idea, where you find something in the place that you’re investigating, and that becomes a direct link to the work…
Bach: …is a touchstone for me when I look back at my development as an artist, as a poet, as a sound artist. That is the thing that I’ll always remember. That simple, elegant practice.
Krumpak: That’s good, that’s good. I think that’s true. I agree with everything you said. I’ve always thought that good, quality information, research, other works of art, whether it’s music or literature, dance, theater, film, architecture, design, all that…if the source of inspiration is rich and right, the best thing is to go directly to it. Use it, bring it into your wheelhouse, as you’re saying, and let it inform the decisions that you’re making in the rest of the actual art piece, or the trajectory, or the area of investigation, whether that’s a person, a place, or thing, a temporary event, seeking the new thing that is happening, or whatever. I guess I’ve always believed that good information, especially art in one form or another, transforms the witness. I mean, psychically and physically transforms you, the maker. The closer you can get to that quality, the better off you are. I never feared that I would be overwhelmed by it. I never feared that it was appropriation or belonged to somebody else. I never really made that much of a distinction between low life and high art at all. I could recognize the differences in them. I could admire the aspiration and the hard work needed for Nureyev to leap up and lift off the stage, and how it felt like he was suspended in the air for what seemed like hours. And the magic of how that changed time and space in my head…I know what kind of discipline must go into that. I don’t know, but I think I know. I always tried to go to the source, as you said, and just get rid of the bullshit and get rid of my prejudice about the source, and just eat it up. Right? I guess that informs the way I teach, too. It does. I try to get young people to the source, the highest quality source that I can get them to. And I try to speak about it in a way that is humble, so that they understand that they can aspire to that same level of greatness of artists like Nureyev, for lack of a better word. If they believe it has the possibility of transformation for them, they probably will be transformed by their journey. And if they don’t, then, that’s their life and their choices and I can’t cram it down their throats. So, I agree with that.
Bach: Have you always approached it that way? Did you come to it through trial and error, or was it an epiphany?
Krumpak: Good question. We don’t want to go all the way back to when I was a child…
Krumpak: You do? [laughs]
Bach: No, no [laughs]. I was just thinking that, for me, the way I made work before I came here was very different than after I came here and worked with you, and worked with Beverly [Naidus].
Bach: I had some very strong epiphanies that were very illuminating.
Krumpak: We could go back to childhood just for fun…I never thought I was an artist when I was a kid. I remember drawing, but it was not on my radar at all, and I think I gravitated to making art as a teenager, and maybe you and I have even discussed this early on, because the people who were making it, the students when I was young, seemed to be the best people to hang around with.
Bach: Ahhh [laughs].
Krumpak: [laughs] They seemed to be the smartest, and they seemed to be the most interesting. They were non-violent. They seemed to have an edge on life. They had a sense of style, and I was just comfortable there. Where I was not comfortable in other arenas. I think I just took a look at that, psychologically and internally, and it just said, “Go over there.” In that environment, I realized the membership card… was that you had to make art. [laughs]
Krumpak: And, so I started to make it. But not with any aspiration of being a great artist. I started playing in bands when I was in junior high school, and I loved music, all kinds of music. The card to being a rock and roll guy was playing the drums. So I taught myself how to play the drums, you know. And then the same people who were interested in music were the same people who were in my art classes.
Krumpak: I loved the life of being a musician. I loved hanging out in bars, even when I wasn’t old enough to be in them yet. I liked the nightlife. I liked the seedy side of town. We certainly saw a lot of it. Through all of that time I was making paintings and drawings, but then again not seriously thinking of myself as an artist, but just as, well, a creative person does this. That’s what one does. You don’t do that. You’re not playing football. You’re playing drums and making paintings. That’s what you do. I think it is the milieu that I identified with. I had an uncle who was in the film industry. He was a screenwriter, but more than that, he was a researcher and a historian for film. He ran the libraries for MGM and Twentieth-Century Fox. He was definitely an outside-of-the-norm person, he was almost a Zen Buddhist, who drank lots of vodka and read volumes when he wasn’t doing film research. He was mixing up words and pictures all the time, and he had this erratic, loner lifestyle. And he really liked me and I really liked him, so he was an example of esoteric in motion. Also, I had some really great painting teachers early on, from New York, who were very different in the way they handled themselves. They were definitely bohemians. I could watch that, and I felt comfortable, not posing, but I felt comfortable around them because they offered alternative views of the world and ways to move through it. I think that those environments became closer and closer. I went to San Francisco to go to school at State [San Francisco State University], but it was closed because of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. You couldn’t go to class. So, I ended up applying to the San Francisco Art Institute, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. And then I was around really odd young artists and very eclectic teachers who were very political. Certainly their lifestyle came first, and art-making was part of the lifestyle, and not the other way around. So, I learned how to be San Franciscan, I learned how to be excessive and have a lot of attitude.
Krumpak: I learned to know what I liked, know what I didn’t like, which barstool to sit on, which one not to sit on. Where to have your cappuccino in the morning, where not to have your cappuccino in the morning. How to read the paper. How to sit at a table. How to be addicted to a latte at Caffe Trieste. All those flavor mixes, I think, helped the thing you’re talking about…mesh the idea of what an artist is with how one conducts oneself. And what artwork one makes, and what you have to do to be ethical and hold your position within that community. How sincere you have to try to be. How you have to realize…and this is getting a little personal, but that’s okay…how to realize just how fucked up you are, as a person. Meaning, how imperfect. Because, I could see all these great imperfections and imbalance with people who I liked to be around in the art scene. And I realized that it was okay. I could be dis-balanced, and not a well-put together and holistic being.
Bach: Aren’t we all.
Krumpak. That’s right. Those of us who make art [laughs].
Jeffrey Roden is a composer who lives with his wife, Shelley, and their dog, Hazel, in a remarkably serene neighborhood in Glendale, California. This conversation took place over email, July 2014 to June 2015.
Bach: Your mailing address places you technically in Glendale, but your house is situated near the intersection of Glendale, Pasadena, and La Canada Flintridge in the Verdugo mountains. The Los Angeles Times calls the region The Verdugos. How would you describe the neighborhood where you live?
Roden: Small rant to start with . . . growing up in Los Angeles, there were almost no names for little areas like Picfair [Village], Beverly Crest, Koreatown, etc. Thinking about it, the only two I can remember were Little Tokyo and the Borscht Belt, which was the area around Fairfax and Beverly Boulevard. The idea of trying to create some neighborhood identity out of a place where everyone is barely conscious of anything besides their own off-ramp by giving it a fabricated name seems so disingenuous. You cannot make a neighborhood by naming it. Rant completed.
That being said, our little slice of Glendale, with the exception of the Art Center Student and Faculty Speed Racing Association, is, in fact, quite a beautiful, unknown little neighborhood. One of our neighbors had a wonderful 4th of July party, and the newbie neighbors were so surprised that a lot of people know each other on a first-name basis. We walk the dogs twice daily, and most of our neighbors actually wave as they drive by or we walk past. Shelley and I retrieved another neighbor’s expensive bike from his garage when we discovered he had left the garage door open to the street. I called our Neighborhood Watch person, who notified him we had his bike safe. He was completely nonplussed that anyone would look out for him. Sadly, I suppose this is the way many people face their day.
Among the many wonders of living here is the abundant wildlife, which seems almost ridiculous considering we are about a 5-minute drive from a gigantic freeway interchange. Deer, skunks, mountain lion, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and our own bear. Shelley actually just missed seeing the bear on our front steps one night when she worked late.
The quiet and the trees have a very significant impact on my work. We have a gigantic liquid amber tree in the front yard, and I often wonder if I will ever make anything as marvelous as the sound its leaves makes in a good stout wind, especially if our giant Soleri bell gongs at the same time. Trees give me a sense of order and rightness, and with the exception of loggers and logging, trees maintain a kind of detachment and impunity to the vibrations and irrelevance of our activities. There are wonderful trees of every kind all over this little area, and no day passes without my being attracted to one or another of them.
Lastly, diversity is almost an obscene piece of language, however it is quite a treat to live with so many different kinds of people, even the newly migrating hipsters priced out of Silverlake. At the 4th of July party, I had a long chat with a new neighbor about [Morton] Feldman…actually we had a Feldman love fest, if that is possible.
It feels like home, and that is, I suppose, the best thing that could be said.
Bach: “Feels like home” is indeed a wonderful thing, and it goes beyond the words we have for it. When you say that the trees give you a sense of order and rightness, is this the impact on your work that you’re talking about?
Roden: Actually, I have loved trees all my life, which is ironic considering I have spent most of my life in a large urban area.
Anything that could be said about trees descends rather rapidly into vapidness and cliché. It is, however, their stoic, immutable nature that has always made me feel happy and safe, and somehow I feel that, regardless of what happens, there is always change, and that even ennui has a beauty. Just standing still is sometimes the most perfect thing that can be done. I hate climbing in them, lights on them, anything which attempts to rope them into our short-lived and anxious world. They are beyond anxiety, and I imagine trees, with whatever consciousness they possess, take death very wonderfully without the least drama. Tolkien’s ents are a perfect literary picture of this. Do not get me started on Peter Jackson………………ergggg.
I have no idea how they impact my work, other than I hope that my work has the patience and confidence of trees, and that other things will come to live in my work and take up residence, embellish a bit, maybe the creation of bird songs, as birds would be next on my favorites list.
The irrelevance of our activities is that, for the most part, we only exist or matter to a few people if we are lucky, and perhaps mostly for ourselves. The work we make, certainly we hope, has life everlasting, but that is beyond our knowing.
That is the tree mind.
It does not matter if we do not know what will happen, and we should not.
So that we can make work for the present and for its own sake.
This is why it is perhaps fortunate to not have a giant career which dictates and demands, and is why I quit playing for a living.
I make work, and that is mostly an adequate reward for the million hours it takes.
Bach: So, your work naturally took an inward turn as you gave up gigging, and this meant more time in your studio. Did your studio setup change a lot when you moved to Glendale?
Roden: Saying studio is so generous, as I am the least technically competent person in America. My studio is a Zoom recorder I never use and my scoring software Sibelius. Sibelius is a wonder and has allowed me to easily morph to composer. I do know how to copy music longhand, but to be able to hear and make changes in the score even with cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeesy samples is a great help. Once, I had a massive synth setup and all kinds of stuff which I made my earlier CDs with, but I think I knew that I would wind up here no matter how hard I struggled not to. That being said, if you can find your copy of Mary Ann’s Dream, listen carefully to track 5, “a kind word.” I just put this on over the weekend and loved it.
Bach: I think it’s interesting how your work in Sibelius is affected in some way by hearing an approximation, as cheesy as it may be, of the notes you are transcribing, a temporary stand-in that eventually disappears as the piece comes to fruition. As low-tech as it is, your setup is still a very hands-on process. And I want to get back to your point about eventually ending up where you are now, but I want to dig deeper into the idea of studio. I’m wondering what it is specifically about your music room in the Glendale house that fosters or nurtures your practice. How did you envision this space, and how different is it from the room where you made music in the Culver City house? Is this current room close to an ideal space for you? This is what I meant by studio in my previous question…not necessarily a recording studio, but a place where you can reflect and read and make music or listen to music or simply sit and think. A smaller home within the larger home.
Roden: I always seem to make a place for myself where the outside is framed so that it is the inside. I love trees and sky and clouds and that rare rain. It would be my prayer to live in the forest someday, or some other deeply silent place where I can dream and look out the window. This is the essence of my work now. Once, it was a chase for virtuosity; now it is an effort to make music which is more a reflection of my inside self. This current room, especially after changing the windows to bring the outside in more clearly, is a room I will be sad to leave. I think clearly my best composing work has been done here. As my life is really just music, this room serves as a place where I spend most of my time. Even while doing non-music work, I can listen to music here or go to the piano and find notes or just imagine what is to come next. I like that the dogs and Shelley also camp out here, as it keeps me from getting too precious and lofty. It is easy to feel distracted by noise, and it is a great discipline to work around and through it. Now, almost nothing is annoying and I like to feel those I love close by and it the same feeling with me. Hazel sleeps with her head on the piano, and I suppose she could, and should, get some co-composer credit.
My dream space would be a place so quiet, I could open the doors completely to the outside and work in the sun, even, and feel the presence of everything. I know that the listener hears and knows everything, even if they, or you the composer/performer, are unaware of what that knowledge is. I knew this quite unconsciously when I quit playing for a living. Now I know it as a certainty, and work with some diligence to bring only my intention to life rather than other aspects of myself or my knowledge. The professional life is a daunting way to keep yourself in a state without compromise.
What Sibelius has done is allow me to skip an important step in my music education, and compose on a big scale without the hands-on practice I would have gotten had I gone to college. Fortunately, I have a very instinctive grasp of how the orchestration should go, and my teachers have stepped in and provided the technical details. After hearing my first performance, I think I am definitely going in the right direction and have a lot of confidence that I know what I need to know. Feldman has a section in a book about how orchestration is not a skill but a talent like composing, and further goes on to say without an original orchestration sense it would be impossible for a composer to be original (that was the world’s worst paraphrase in history). I think, like choosing the notes, you have to just know who will play what. Sibelius has been helpful at guiding me to that, even though frequently you really need a very vivid imagination…
Bach: Is it safe to say that the New Albion concert at Bard College was a turning point for you? Or, at least a signpost? Do you still think about what it would be like to live there in upstate New York?
Roden: The New Albion festival performance was a turning point only in hindsight. I did another record for solo bass, bridge to the other place, which I did not release beyond a few copies. What I realized in hindsight is that, in the New Albion concert performance, I had accomplished on the bass what I had searched for all of my life, and was able to put together a performance worthy of that search. In a room filled with composers and musicians, the music and I survived and prospered under the harshest scrutiny. I would say perhaps almost disdain by some of the people there. I think there is a homely quality to the work which grates and wears on the educated and the modern-minded. This is the beauty of truly being on the fringe, as these contrary feelings are not a distraction, a motivation, or really anything other than a feeling of separation from a collective mindset that I am uninterested in. I spent my professional music life under the obligation to interest the listener and evoke some response depending on the situation. No one had the slightest interest in my intention or the philosophical basis for what I was doing. I have retained that sense, even now as my work has turned toward a different purpose. So, that is a long way of saying that the New Albion festival was perhaps the beginning of my transition from the primary focus of my life being the bass and becoming a full time composer. It is a choice which I still have conflicted feelings about, as it has always been my fear that this is what would happen. Until I find some new direction to take the bass, I will compose and wait for the new way to use the bass. I have tried in my writing for chamber ensembles to give the double bass interesting and challenging parts to play. For the moment, it is as much as I can manage.
We never stop thinking about living somewhere else that would give us the quiet and beauty of upstate New York. Shelley’s work, however, will keep us rooted in some city, and we are so fortunate that where we live now is as quiet and beautiful as one could imagine in Los Angeles. I mean, we have a bear after all…
Solo performance of four soundtracks for a video by Latvian artist Linda Konone, Private Time: 4 Episodes, curated by Zane Datava at LACE. Also performing: Infinite Body, Yann Novak, and Steve Roden accompanying a video program including work by Krišs Salmanis, Kate Krolle, and Linda Konone. Wednesday, 7 November 2012, 7-9 PM, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), 6522 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. $10 general admission, $5 students, free for LACE members.