Tom Krumpak (part 2)

This is part two of a conversation that took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. Read part one here.

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.

All images courtesy Tom Krumpak and Jan Simonovic.

Glenn Bach: Going back to San Francisco…I’m sure we’ve talked about this before, that you have very strong ties to Mar Vista, and a house with your mom, and that neighborhood…if the position here at Cal State Long Beach did not happen, might you have settled in San Francisco rather than in Los Angeles?

Tom Krumpak: I don’t think so, no. Because I didn’t come here for this job. I left San Francisco because of a love affair gone bad, you know, a long-time love affair. So, the city is a weird place. It’s changed now, but it’s not a big place, physically, right? And, people have their ruts that they’ve grooved through the city, if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or an artist. So, the city wasn’t big enough for the two of us. Basically, that’s why I left.

Literally, every day that you get on a bus or public transportation, you see, within the mass of the public, similar faces over and over and over again. I just knew that city, which I loved deeply at that time…I loved the cracks on the sidewalks, I loved this house on this corner…as we talked about, you know, my place for coffee, my place for drinking at night. I loved the music in the jukebox at this place, you know, only opera on this jukebox in this bar on a particular night. I loved living in the Italian neighborhood. I loved living in the Haight, in the post Haight-Ashbury time, by the park. I loved that city. For me, that city was another body. I really loved it.

I was educated there at the Art Institute, too. I matured…I guess you would say ‘mature.’ I lived in a commune. In our Victorian flat, there were nine people paying rent, and at least another nine or ten people who were hanging on. There were terrible moments and great moments, but, man, it was in the moment. Some of us were musicians, and we played in one part of the flat, even with all those people in it, and we painted in another room in the flat, and we lived in between them. We threw wild parties, and it was all good. I really loved that place.

But, when my personal life fell apart, it was time to leave. I don’t think I would have stayed in San Francisco. Matter of fact, I did try to go back after living in L.A. for a while, and tried to think about doing it again, and I stayed two days, and that was it. I knew I had been changed. My life had been altered. I was living in L.A. now.

The other place would have been New York, of course. It would have been New York. I think I could stop mourning for San Francisco, and all the intimate things that I loved there, the places and the stuff, when I went to New York. I saw that New York magnified San Francisco at that time, maybe six or seven times, and I felt like there was a big world of other stuff. I love sitting there. I could live there. So, I contemplated that for a while, which led to going there a couple times a year for the last thirty years.

Coming to L.A. was kind of the default. I could come here, and I could scrounge off my family and my friends until I got my act together. And then, down the line, I came to Cal State Long Beach, because John de Heras saw a show of mine in Hollywood, and he came to where I was working, my day job, and said, “You should be teaching at Cal State Long Beach.” I didn’t have my MFA degree, and he said, “Well, I’ll just be the chair of your committee; you should come here.” And I did. Then, after that, I started getting teaching positions, and here I am. Academia…I was thrown out of high school. Academia was not, for political reasons, in my purview. I was as surprised as anybody.

Bach: We live the life that we end up living, right? You can have these relationships with these cities, these deep, connected relationships with these places, but you don’t have to actually live there. San Francisco is part of who you are. You will always have this passion for the city, but you don’t have to actually live there. Go visit a couple times of year.

Krumpak: Have good friends there.

Bach: Good friends there, and you get your fill, and you see all the things that you want to do, and visit your people, and go to the places and drink the coffee, you know. Then you leave and you come back, and then it’s like, “OK, now I need to get my New York fix, so, I’m going to plan a trip and plan a week or week-and-a-half there,” and, then, down the road, “I think it’s time to get overseas again,” or whatever.

Krumpak: Sure, back to London.

Bach: Back to Italy or back to London. You accumulate these place relationships over the years that shift in importance in your life, or sometimes you have a falling-out with a place, like when I moved to New York, I thought New York was it. I’d experienced major cities…Rome was my first major city. New York was its own thing. At that time, I didn’t think very highly of San Francisco. I mean, I enjoyed San Francisco, but I thought, “Why would you want to spend time in San Francisco when you could be in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and there’s so much there?” It wasn’t until much later—actually, with Sharon, when I spent more time going up there—that it kind of shifted. I don’t think less of New York now, but San Francisco became something different for me, and I soon had different ways of accessing the city. Headquarters, I called them, the Tenderloin, that became these centers of intimacy and good memories for me. For you, there’s a wide variety of these places that function as extensions of who you are.

Krumpak: Right. I think that the idea of teaching and exhibiting in different places is really important, because it means that you’re doing something real there, not just ‘tourist-ing’ it or even sensitively walking around, which is fine too. But, you’re actually doing a job with other people who are doing a job. I think that’s really important.

And the people…if you’re lucky enough to meet some really great people in all these places…I’ve always valued the people in these different places. Maintaining those relationships, going back to ‘water’ them, you know, and to find out what’s happening with their lives, and to just slip into their lives a little bit for dinner or an evening of chatting and drinking or whatever. Or, seeing their show, flying back for an opening in New York for Josh [Dorman]’s show, or whatever. That’s really, super important. I really count on those people. Psychically, they’re in my head. They’re in the locations, and that charges all that stuff you’re talking about.

When I need to know something and I don’t know it, I call them, and I say, “Hey, I need to understand the pricing of my artwork, and I’ve been in this business for a long time. I don’t get it. Give me your advice. Just give it to me straight. Tell it to me the way you want. I’m listening.”

I just called Chris [Cook] in England, and I said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time. I need your poetry.” So, I just got a new book hot off the press. I wish I could see them in body more often, but at least we are still creatively and psychically in touch with each other. So, yeah. It’s like those places and their population of friends and creative people are super, super important. They humanize the whole thing.

Bach: Yes. So, Mar Vista.

Krumpak: [laughs] OK. The little burg.

Bach: You’ve been in that house…

Krumpak: Yep, over thirty years.

Bach: Your studio has been associated with that house for just…

Krumpak: Fifteen years.

The house in Mar Vista, California

Bach: That has an effect on, obviously, who you are and where you live. Having your studio in the place where you live, ten steps away, or twenty steps away. And, having your practice on the West Side, in Los Angeles…it’s a construct, right? Los Angeles is a construct. You’re part of this Southern California thing, but you’re also part of a neighborhood. There’s Los Angeles as a whole, then there’s the West Side as a smaller subset, and within that there’s Culver City, Marina del Rey, and within that there are these smaller neighborhoods like Mar Vista and Del Rey and Palms. There’s this sort of neighborhood reality that is different than in other neighborhoods. Maybe you could talk about what it is about Mar Vista that keeps you going and that keeps you frustrated and inspired and…

Krumpak: I grew up there. I came here from Ohio when I was ten, and we lived near the Santa Monica airport with my grandmother for a little while. My parents bought a house. I grew up from the age of 10 through 19, or whatever, in Mar Vista. That house, where my mother still lives, is five minutes away from where I live right now. She’s 90 years old. It’s a very unassuming neighborhood. It was a working-class neighborhood. Now, it’s an increasingly wealthy neighborhood up on the hill. It was always very regular. By that, I mean that people kept to themselves, and it was clean, and it worked.

My father built a business three minutes away from where he lived, and he would walk to work. He built his hardware store from scratch. He had somebody build the building for him, then he opened the business. He had been in business in a hardware store in Ohio before that, for many years, partnering with my mother’s sister’s husband.

We were really close and tight. The property that I live on now was the eccentric uncle’s house, who worked for the film studios. When he passed away, the sisters inherited it. It was rented for three years by a man who was a curator for The Getty, and then we purchased it. 1950s modernist house, slab-on-grade, glass at the back, kind of Japonisme on modern, which is a current interest in my work. So, you can see, there’s a lot of crossover going on here.

The original house (right) and the newer house (left) designed by Jan Simonovic, circa 2015.

We raised both of our boys in the house with practically no heat, because we couldn’t afford it. We had one wall furnace that barely worked. When it rained, water came down the walls on the inside and we mopped it up. It became a clubhouse, because their friends, as they got a little bit older, grade school or whatever…all the stuff they couldn’t do at their house, they could do at our house, because it was completely indestructible, because it was all messed up. They could ride their bike in the front door and go straight through the living room and right out the back door, and nobody cared.

Bach: [laughs] Right.

Krumpak: They could run laps through the house and through the back yard and around the yard. It housed a lot of great memories. My wife Jan’s family also lived five minutes away, so, our children never had babysitters. They had the care of their grandparents. In that way, Mar Vista takes on a very personal geographic importance. It’s more than the place. It’s this proximity of family that is very important. When I left to move to San Francisco, I never thought in a million years I’d ever come back to L.A. Literally, never come back. I was as surprised by circumstances as anybody, especially that I’m this close.

Jan grew up five minutes away from where we live now. She never thought she’d live in L.A., either, let alone five minutes away from where she grew up. She was born in Long Beach, at the hospital there, and then moved to Venice, where she was brought up in what was a very working-class, post-war, small-house neighborhood that was very integrated. There were people…it was an international enclave. Up on the hill, where my parents were, is mostly white.

Where we live now, we live four blocks from a housing project. The street adjacent to us has become restaurant row for the new hipster overflow from Venice. We have literally four new bakeries. We have ten new restaurants within a five-minute walk. We have a place to have a beer, and everything else you can imagine. It doesn’t mean that my particular neighborhood up close is gorgeous, but it’s certainly not awful. Actually, it’s becoming very, very desirable for young people in the tech field now, because Playa Vista is, again, five minutes away. It brings thousands of techie people, for the good or the bad, to our neighborhood.

About ten years ago, L.A. did a survey of arts concentrations to figure out what kinds of arts resources should be allocated for the future needs of different neighborhoods. Ten years ago, Mar Vista had the densest concentration of artists of any place in the city. Who knows now. Because it doesn’t look like that, like Venice used to…which is, you know, way gone now. But, there are screenwriters and composers and musicians, like professional touring musicians…the guy who plays with the Kinks lives at the edge of my street. And painters, and people who go to work in all the movie studios in Culver City, and a lot of them are ten minutes away. So, it looks like Iowa, in a sense, but, in fact, is just chock full of intellectual, visual types, and musical types. It’s a camouflaged zone, in a sense.

The new studio in progress, circa 2015

Krumpak: It’s changed. It’s taken twenty years—more than twenty—for it to kind of wake up. When I moved in, there were people across the driveway selling drugs on their back patio every night. There was a pool hall down at the corner that was another dealing spot, every day and every night.

That’s all gone now. When I moved in, we were the youngest people in the neighborhood. Youngest white people in the neighborhood; it was very Hispanic at that time. It still is, largely, but it has a whole other element now as well. Good or bad. Now, it’s flooded with young people jogging, walking their dogs, hanging out in the cafes. It has definitely flipped over from one way to the other.

It isn’t so much that I have an allegiance to the geographic place, although I have to say, being ten minutes’ bike ride from the beach—we ride bikes a lot—is really important to me. I could never live any farther. Not ever. I would never want to live any farther than ten minutes’ bike ride away from the beach. I grew up on Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, my teenage years were there. I have fond memories of it. Both my boys are surfers and musicians; you know them. They grew up on that beach, so that’s another generational thing passed on, the beach that Jan was born next to. We have lots of memory banks of that particular geographic location that go back through both of our families, and through the lives of our children. They continue to use that history. As I said, they just…both of them could not live far from the beach. They just need it. It’s in their DNA. If they’re not in the water, both of them, they’re unbearable [laughs].

I have my studio there [in the original house], which we are redoing now, and we have the band’s rehearsal space that adjoins my studio, so we have young musicians flowing in and out all the time. They’ve become part of our extended family. They sit around our kitchen table drinking a glass of wine, having a beer, talking. I hear about their escapades. One of them works and travels around the world with Dave Foster, setting the stage for Stevie Wonder, and things like that.

I get to hear all about that stuff. I hear music from them practicing while I’m painting in the studio. I listen to their CDs or their working tapes from recording sessions…that, plus other music. They’re always bringing music to me, loading my iPod. You know, my youngest son, Miles, is a completely esoteric jazzophile, besides being a rock drummer, so, he’s actually playing in that studio six hours a day. On those set of drums, playing.

That house was owned by my eclectic uncle. The house we live in now was designed by Jan. And the new building that we’re building was designed by her as well. How many people, working-class people, can say that they live in a house? That they live in a neighborhood that has personal history, in a building that one of them designed? Next to a room where your son’s band practices?

Bach: It’s pretty remarkable.

The studio, designed by Jan Simonovic, 2018.

Krumpak: Our immediate place is very, very, very important to us. It props up that whole idea of an integrated approach to art-making and teaching. The relationship of being the artist to the making of the product is all propped up by that.

Bach: Sometimes quite literally. I remember…I’m not sure about the paintings that you’re doing now, but there was a series a while back where you were asking architects and painters and creative people, “Let me have access to your studio, let me have the scraps, let me have the little castoffs, the objects that are in your studio. If you’ve done some construction, I want the spare wood.” Those ephemera became the literal shapes that you would put down and trace around, and they became these reoccurring motifs. So you were bringing your connection with…I can’t remember his name, the architect.

Krumpak: Michael Folonis.

Bach: Folonis. Bringing stuff from his studio into the painting.

Krumpak: Yep, his blueprints. Everything.


Bach: Your relationship to not only your immediate place, but your connections to your friends and their places, becomes a direct connection in the work and how you make the work itself.

Krumpak: Absolutely direct. Totally direct. Phil [Mantione] and Alysse [Stepanian], who we both know, composers, videographers…the plans for their house in New York, in upstate Delaware actually, I guess it was. Their whole plot plan, and those all became actual shapes and forms within a work. For a while, you’re right, I would be working with architects who were doing projects, and I would be using the verbatim plans, overlapping them to create geometric forms or compositions based on real architecture. That was really important, that it be a real place and real architecture. Nothing in the show that I have up now, for instance, no matter how many patterns are in them or pieces of geometric juxtaposition of forms, there’s not one single thing in any of the work that is made up. Even in the large painting, little floating teeny inch-high silhouettes are tracings out of a catalog my father used to order hardware for his store. The color, sometimes, is an indigenous palette to a particular place. Sometimes, the color runs free, and is just an expressive choice. But, the actual composition within the work is never made up. I like that concreteness of attachment that you’re talking about.

tom krumpak-1
STUDIO/HOUSE, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36×36 inches
Composition created from plans for studio, overlaid by tracings of covers of DWELL magazine and torn and traced selected pages grouped together from each issue, overlaid by geometric outlines of previously highlighted passages from Hemingway’s Movable Feast

Bach: For the casual viewer, he or she might see something recognizable, like a familiar shape or interesting juxtapositions of triangles and rectangles in an interesting way, and maybe there’s an architectonic feel to it. But, for the people who know you, and specifically the people whose material you’re drawing upon, it’s like, “Ah. That was interesting how you transformed that…”

Krumpak: Yeah, they have an inside track to it. I ask people who look at the work, “How much do you want to know about the work? Because I can tell you a little, I can tell you medium, or I can tell you a lot. How much time do you have?”

Bach: “And, do you want that kind of relationship to the work, or do you just want to have your own…”

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I don’t impress that or don’t load it on it. Almost always, when they say they do want to understand something beyond the visuality of it, they say, “Ah, that’s great!” Not that I’ve chosen something great or that I’m great, but that it’s so much more fun for them to actually look at the work now that they understand all the different sort of things that have been ciphered down to create that particular work of art. That it’s reaching from all these different places, or a single site. That information really does seem to bump up their enjoyment of looking at the work. I love that.

Bach: There’s a simultaneity and a complexity going on in the work, because there’s this relationship of the shapes having this very real connection and purpose. There’s this connection to your relationship with the people and the place, but at the same time, it’s a painting. The painting takes a long time to make, sometimes a year, maybe longer. There’s the act of labor in the studio, night after night, weekend after weekend, this slow progress, seeing the painting slowly take shape over the course of a long time. A painting is a painting. But, it’s also this relationship to your friends and to these places, and it’s also this conversation that you’re having with the process of painting. So there’s this complexity and simultaneity going on, that you as a painter are making a physical painting. It’s ‘abstract painting,’ but it’s not abstract. It’s this, and it’s also this.

Krumpak: Yes, yes. That’s exactly right.

Bach: And, it’s also the music that’s playing. It’s also the wine that you’ve had that night. It’s all of it.

Krumpak: Yes, right. Thanks for saying that. That’s the idea. The process of making these paintings for the last eight years, these very slow, ‘they take as long as they take’ kind of paintings, is to allow…well, you know this. When you have a real span of time, say a year, a lot of life happens in that year. It invites that intervention in there, right? The process, by its nature, painting slowly and meticulously with very teeny brushes on big, sometimes very big canvases, allows there to be a lot of conditions that can subtly alter the result of the work. Who knows what makes you choose this color or that color. I know that there’s a level of finish that I’m looking for that is needed to house and compress that stuff you were talking about into a viable thing called a painting. Then, there’s the stuff that happens in life, moment to moment, day to day. Circumstances that help you make subconscious choices. Things like the color, or the amount of layers of paint that should be on this part of the painting, or on all of the painting. That’s the decision. You have an aesthetic goal for the quality level in terms of visuality, the way the edges meet, how consistent the surfaces should be so that there’s a democracy across the surface. That speaks to the connectedness of all aspects, because they’re all painted with exactly the same amount of paint. The edges are all the same. Sort of a Cézannesque way of thinking about the democracy of a surface. That applies then, philosophically, to the democracy of the information that goes into making the painting. That’s something I’m very interested in.

tom krumpack-4
“Shakkei” 2017, acrylic on paper, 30×22 inches
Composition created from photos of Lil’ Tokyo storefronts, in downtown Los Angeles before WWII , elements from Japanese woodcuts , tracings of torn paper; also calligraphic shapes traced, rearranged from sumi ink and acrylic paint gestural drawings done in the studio

But, I had to slow down. A lot of the earlier work was about setting up intentional conflict to increase drama within the work. Whether it was color conflict or source information conflict, geometry versus gestural mark-making, it was all to set up a change of pace, quickened moments and quiet moments. It was an antagonistic situation, a yin and a yang, that I was interested in housing in a work to make a certain kind of ‘rocking’ quality. When I started this work, about seven, eight years ago, I asked, “Can a painting be successful without internal conflict? Can it ride on a multi-layered, complex discourse, a median conversational level, and be successful? Or, does it need those things which are easier to rely on?” Black against white, red against green. Sharp against diffuse. Those are ways that people have always created dynamics. But, what if you let that go? Will it become boring, or will it become more subtle, and perhaps have the ability to house more?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do. That was a big shift in my work. The work is about a connection between Japanese domestic architecture, where intimate things happen, and mid-century modernist architecture, which was post-World War II. I was born in 1949, so, that’s me, and that’s the kind of house I was living in, that I am working in now, soon to be changed.

Again, there’s the multi-level connection that I’m drawn to. How can I take those two aesthetic positions in architecture…what do those pieces of architecture mean? When they’re fused together…because they look ‘Pacific Rim,’ and they’ve somehow influenced each other. You start pushing those philosophies of real architecture and space that is lived in. That’s important to me. It’s not commercial space; it’s lived-in space. When you join those forces together and let them…what does that do? It’s about cadence and rhythm, and about a poetic locking and unlocking, hopefully. It’s about setting up a kinetic thing, which is not about loudness. It’s much more about…there’s this thing in Japanese garden landscape, right, which is to allow things to be what they are, but use them.

That’s what the work has come out of. How do I take these things that come from these components, and then lace in literature and poetry and song lyrics and things like that that are also close to me? How can I make them come together within the work to make distinct, different paintings, so that they don’t all look alike, and let them be what they are but hang out together? That’s what’s run this work. That was a big shift for me.

Bach: And, I think it’s probably connected to the work that you’ve done on the house over the years, and living in a place that’s had disruptions. Right? You haven’t had a domestic situation where everything stayed the same, everything was already set. You were always tinkering with the structure, and building the new house, and then changing the new house, and trying to get the city to sign off on the studio and the wall and the…all that stuff has been, for better or for worse, in flux.

Krumpak: Yeah, it has. It has. For a long time.

Bach: The boys, growing up, graduating, moving on.

Krumpak: Coming back.

Bach: Coming back. All that, I think…whether that informed the shift in your work or it coincided with the shift in your work…

Krumpak: Interesting.

Bach: Or the shift in your work influenced the…

Krumpak: It’s in relation to that shifting chaos, or whatever you want to call it. Yeah, that might be. Who knows? That is an interesting notion, too, in another way. I think when I left San Francisco…that whole thing changed when I came to L.A. I never got back to being…in San Francisco, it’s a city of domesticity. It’s an interior city, gets cold a lot, it’s foggy, it’s atmospheric. You sit in places. You read books. Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, all that stuff. When I came to L.A., I don’t think my life ever went back to domesticity. We do very domestic things. We raise children, and eat dinner together…but, I never believed in it anymore. I never believed in it anymore. I never desired…I desire some sense of order. I enjoy things being in their place. It just doesn’t happen very often. But, I don’t believe that everything in its place means I’m OK, or it’s a signal that I have…

Bach: Matured.

Krumpak: I’ve matured, or that I understand I’m an intellectual, or that we are a good family. Those things never came back together. I had my dose in San Francisco, and that was over. I think L.A. is like that. It’s shifting, and it’s wide open. Sure, there are a lot of things that are happening that make it about apartheid, economic apartheid, and we all know that. But it’s a horizontal place. Things slide all over the place. San Francisco has a vertical pecking order. You understand your place and you hone it, buddy.

New York is a city of learning rules, right? You learn how to sit on a subway car, how not to look at other people’s faces. You learn how much personal space to take, or not. You learn what pace to walk on the street. You have to learn a lot of rules to just wake up and go to sleep in New York City. And then, you pride yourself in doing them well. That’s what a New Yorker is.

But in L.A., for me, it’s a horizontal, non-domestic situation. I never tried to internalize that in my close-in space. But I do bring that kind of working…I like your analogy. It’s like a ‘working man’ kind of process to making paintings. You go in the studio, and you work. You work for as long as you can, and then you shut off the lights, and you shut off the music, and you leave. The next day, you come back and turn it all on, start the music, drink that coffee, and start again. I think it can feel very genuine and very comforting. At the same time, it feels like a racket and discipline, and it feels like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m going to sit in there and work, stand up for six more hours with a teeny brush in my hand.” But, there’s a love for that, too. You start the painting, you ‘middle’ the painting, and you complete the painting. Go to work. I’ve never shied away from work. Neither did my father or my mother or my wife. We are a working family.


Bach: Right. And now, you have two sculptures in the show. You may have done sculpture before, but I’ve never seen any sculpture from you. The two pieces, in the time that I’ve been able to spend with them at the opening, are very intimate. Very personal and playful and rich and complex, but not fussy. It’s just this celebration of interesting, cool, meaningful stuff. “Here it is, I’ve put it together in this sort of compartment that you have to…”

Krumpak: It’s a place.

Bach: Yeah. It’s like a closet of curiosities that you’re seeing some of it, but there’s other stuff that you can’t see. That has come…

Krumpak: Relatively new. Yeah. When I was in San Francisco—and I was very, very, very young—I made sculpture like what we now call ‘pathetic.’ Provisional. It was very not sculpture. I made it out of birds’ feathers from my own bird, you know, and bead work that an Indian woman showed me how to do, and I would collect. I made sculptures and three-dimensional objects out of rhinestones, and by buying glittery fabric and sewing it and stuffing it like a pillow and putting rhinestones on it and mounting it on the wall by pins. Very not traditional…they were like objects of oddity and seduction, you know, because I didn’t know how to do sculpture. So these are, in a way, related to that. They’re not obvious, traditional sculptures.

Bach: And I don’t think of them as sculptures. I think of them, in a way, as three-dimensional paintings without a whole lot of paint in them.

Krumpak: Right. That’s right.

Bach: It’s the stuff that normally would be traced and made into a painting, but, now, it’s just the object, and it’s just a different arrangement of it.

tom krumpak-18
“3516 Centinela,” 2016, mixed media

Krumpak: Right, yeah. I think that’s right, and I like that, actually. Thank you for saying that. The idea of tracing is that, as you just said, you take the object and you stick it down and you draw around it and then you paint it in. I don’t paint it illusionistically, I leave it flat, with the trace.

Bach: Yeah, the shape.

Krumpak: Yeah. Now, the idea is to just move the object out, take it out of the closet, and just let it be what it is. That gets back to that Japanese landscape idea. Let it be what it is, but, put it in a context that makes it more than what it is, or at least contextualizes it and opens up new possibilities for what it is. Keep moving it around, just like you would with anything, painting or your music or whatever, until it doesn’t want to go anywhere else. Then, that becomes its position in the piece. The damnedest thing in making those sculptures is, when you start making that kind of sculpture, with found objects and handmade things that you make, and you ‘collaborate’ them together…as soon as I start making these three-dimensional things, everything

Bach: [laughs] Yeah.

Krumpak: …in the world, every single thing that I walked past, I was thinking, “Well, gee, I could use that. I could put that in there.” And, I was doing that in the studio. I put podiums in the studio, and I’d just start throwing stuff on them, pulling stuff off, and screwing things together, and then taking them apart and attaching something else. And I realized, wow, man, anything…you can just do anything.

Bach: I just thought of the way you would make the still lives in the drawing classes and painting classes. You’re describing exactly what you would do when you would build a still life for the first time. You would put stuff on there, and take stuff off, and put it there, and let it sit for a while, and choose something else. It’s that same spirit.

Krumpak: Exactly. It’s training for it. I thought of that when I was making them. I thought, “I don’t know anything about making sculpture.” I honestly had no criteria. “Don’t fake it; I don’t have any.” But, then I thought, “I’ve made still lives for years, and this is like making a still life,” so, I totally agree with you on that. Once I got that, that this is a place, it’s a location, it’s a still life that I’m making, and I’m making it out of stuff that I’ve been saving for God knows why…so, I’m going to put it together.

Bach: And who cares?

Krumpak: And who cares? I’m going to put it on a pedestal, and then people can come and see it, and…great. I don’t have any defense about it. I’m not protecting it at all. I don’t think it about that way. It animates the exhibition it’s in, and it offers another opportunity for a dialogue between the paintings and the three-dimensional objects. The flatness of the painting and the dimensionality of the objects, and that is just a nice conversation to have happening in the room.

I think another thing that, when I was making them, I was thinking about Matisse, and I was thinking about Matisse’s hotel rooms that he would decorate, and the way that he would hang patterned fabric, and have the odalisque sprawl out in front of it or sit in a chair in front of the window, and have pattern on pattern. Just the joy of the Persian harem tent in a hotel room that was cheap, and what a wonderful fakery that was. So I thought, “This is like that. I should just enjoy decorating and that logic.” And, when he says that “decoration is expression,” I thought, “Yes, I am expressing myself creatively here.”

tom krumpak-8
“Dim Dim,” 2016, mixed media

A wonderful assemblage sculptor I know, who’s also a friend through jazz, we’re both jazz fiends. He’s a sculptor, makes wonderful assemblage and one-of-a-kind standalone sculptures, and is a painter. We’d see each other at jazz things, and I’d say, “Oh, God, I don’t know what’s going on! I have no idea what I’m doing!” And he would say, “Tom, yes you do. Just calm down. Just think, ‘I am creative, and whatever I make, therefore, will be OK.'” You know, that’s easier said than done. But, he was really wonderful. He just was so sweet, that it made me think, “OK, I’ll just do this thing.” And, I had a deadline for the first sculpture, so I had to hit that deadline.

Bach: To get it photographed?

Krumpak: No, to go on exhibition in downtown L.A. It toured for a year of locations in downtown L.A., the one with all the stuff and junk on it. Then the other one, my deadline was for this exhibition. I knew there was a finish line, and I knew I had to get them done, and I knew I could mess around for only so long and live in indecision, and then I had to start making some decisions: “OK, this form is basically OK, and I can change these things,” or, “This is staying, and so I’ve got to find something that’s more compatible than what I have.”

Bach: Right. And, you know, the work is never completely ever finished, right? We’ve talked about this in painting classes. It’s like, a painting or drawing or a piece achieves an equilibrium. It achieves a sort of plateau that, OK, I guess if you stop now, you could call it done. If you add something else, then it upsets that equilibrium, and you then have to go in and go further. So, you came to this point where you had to let it rest in equilibrium. It may not be done the way you thought it was going to be when you started it, but who cares? It is what it is, and…

Krumpak: Yeah, and let it be. Let it be. Make sure, like you would with any kind of musical composition that you’re writing…I mean, you have a criteria level that you’re looking for to feel justifiable for somebody to witness it, right? Somebody other than you. So, you have to bring it to that level, where you feel this experience would be at least worth it for somebody to encounter this thing. Then, once you feel that’s OK, you can just let it be.

And, you know how it is. Well, it’s different in music, certainly, than in visual object-making, but things exist in their time. As soon as you finish them, they start disintegrating. They just do. Paintings gets old, the paint gets crusty. Rust stains appear on the back of the canvas. What I liked about these assemblage sculptures is that I had to assemble parts of them on location. Some parts are welded together. But, then I had to open the drawers and stuff the drawers with things, and take stuff out of the drawers if I had to move it to another location, or put it in storage, or whatever. In the meantime, life can happen, and you say, “Oh man, this would be great in the drawer instead of that.”

So, every time this sculpture would travel from one location to another over the year, downtown, and before it went here, I switched things up. It didn’t have any static state, just the basic format stayed the same. Or, I had the box sculpture, and I had to take the drawers out from the utility boxes, put them on the base that I made. Then, I had to open the other boxes. “How much should I open the door? This way or this way?” There’s no right way. Each time I can modify it, or take the scroll out of it and put another one in there. I’m not going to let anybody see them anyhow, so they’ll never know, but I will. That’s part of dealing with the inevitability of…things do reach a peak, and then they start falling apart. But, you can have fun playing with that reality.

Bach: There’s a freedom, and a sort of lightness. Not that I’m saying your paintings are heavy, but that there’s a lightness to that process in the sculptures, whereas in the paintings, you put a shape down, and you paint it, and you put the next shape down. You’re putting these shapes down in these relationships, and once the painting gets to where it’s done, you’re not about to go in and sand all the stuff off and put another…it becomes done and you move on, right? There’s a limited amount of adjustability and flexibility in how the painting can function, right? But with these sculptures, these assemblages, whatever they are, there’s a playfulness to them that could be a whole new…

Krumpak: Yeah. It leaves the circuit open. After Fran [Siegel] went to see the show, she sent me an email, and she said, “Oh, the show looked great, but the sculpture,” she said, “those are the closest thing to your interest in jazz of anything you’ve ever done. Because they are so jazz-like, because there’s a sense of playfulness and immediacy to them, yet there’s structure behind it, and there’s also this thing of creating a kind of poetic juxtaposition of things.”

Bach: That’s different every time.

Krumpak: And it can be different every time, but it’s the same core or spine.

Bach: Which is jazz. Taking a standard or whatever, and the improvisation that happens upon that structure. Any performance is going to be slightly…

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. I thought that was really interesting. She’s very smart, so for me that was very insightful, like, “OK, I don’t play in a rock and roll group anymore, but I’m still making music” [laughs]. So, maybe this is a way of doing that.


Alan Nakagawa

Alan in the zone, Mi Ranchito, Mar Vista, CA (photo: Glenn Bach)

Alan Nakagawa is a force of creative nature. This conversation took place on July 1, 2012 at the now defunct Mi Ranchito restaurant on Washington Blvd (just off Grand View) in Mar Vista, California. Originally part of my earlier Atlas Sets project, the conversation feels right at home under the umbrella of Imprintable…stay tuned for a follow-up discussion to see what Alan has been up to in the five years since.

Glenn Bach: You were talking about your proposal for Soundwalk [2012]. What was that about again?

Alan Nakagawa: It’s due today [laughs].

Bach: I may just propose to do the docent thing that I did two years ago. I didn’t submit anything that year, but then they asked me if I wanted to lead a tour of Soundwalk. It wasn’t my own work. It was a performance of the process of walking around Soundwalk and leading a tour. So, I may do that again. I don’t want to do the soundscape ensemble again. I’m not in that mode right now.

Nakagawa: I think it’s great.

Bach: So, your proposal.

Nakagawa: It’s called First in Space: The Ride. Joseph [Tepperman] and I have this love for the space program, and specifically their use of animals. It’s a multi-tiered fascination. One is the horror [laughs] of sending these animals up there.

Bach: To certain death.

Nakagawa: I haven’t actually done the research, or as much research as I should, but I have this fantasy that there are these capsules up there with all these dead monkeys and dogs and cats and turtles. Which probably isn’t true; they’ve probably all come down by now.

Bach: Yeah, re-entry.

Nakagawa: Anyway. The whole beginning of the space program is so fascinating, the relationship with the Nazis, all that sort of thing. The use of the animals is great. Joseph and I are animal lovers, so there is this pro-animal thing going on. Not quite PETA, but rather a fun, kitsch type of thing. It’s also nostalgic in terms of this alleged ‘better times’ in America. So, there’s that. First, we created a storybook. There are traditions in all sorts of cultures that use the storybook format as early theater, specifically for kids. There’s a tradition in Japanese culture as well. So that was our first project. We created this TV set box thing. And we made all these illustrations of animals and these fictitious stories about the animals that had been shot into space. And then it was the story, which was very short, and then Joseph and I would improvise a piece of music in memorial to that.

Bach: Nice.

Nakagawa: We performed that for Eternal Telethon. We did it on Ear Meal, of course. We started doing more research, and we realized the actual stories of these animals are far more interesting than our made-up stories. We decided to spend a year researching the program, so between us we’ve read most of the books that are primarily focused on Laika but go above and beyond that.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: There are quite a few books. There’s even a comic book, which is great. Joseph’s fiancé works at the Museum of Jurassic Technology; they have paintings of all the original dogs.

Bach: That’s cool.

Nakagawa: There’s a whole room dedicated to those dogs. And they’re big paintings, three feet by four feet, two by three. Beautifully framed. And so Joseph and I thought we should have something where people experience the voyage. Over the course of several months we developed this very simple idea; no crazy technology or anything.

Bach: It’s just your truck [used for Sound Bed] [laughs].

Nakagawa. We’re just taking baby steps toward what we hope will be a bigger installation. For Soundwalk it’s First in Space: The Ride. That’s what the series is called, First in Space, for obvious reasons. The installation will be a modified tent, a dome tent, in the vernacular of a spaceship, the capsule. So, you walk into the capsule, you sit in a cockpit kind of thing, and then watch these images projected on the side of the tent. You put your helmet on, which has a microphone. The whole thing is an animation that moves forward by voice-recognition software. We are working on this footage that we created: a fictitious reenactment of what we think it might have been like to be one of these dogs. Your experience, through voice recognition, will be as if you are traveling through this space launch.

Bach: Right.

First in Space: The Ride (photo: FLOOD)

Nakagawa: But in the process of doing this for three minutes, you are, in a sense, creating a sound piece that’s visually activated through your voice, and you’re actually commanding the course of the piece.

Bach: So, you actually have to talk.

Nakagawa. You have to talk. And say it correctly, too. If you don’t, it tells you, “Say it again.”

Bach: “There is an error. You must…”

Nakagawa. So, you’re kind of like that dog. The dogs had to do some very simple things. So that’s what it is. It’s very simple. It’s very cute. Yesterday I spent six hours sewing a space suit for a little dog [laughs], which I’m very happy with. I’ll show you a picture.

Bach: That’s great.

from left to right: Giuseppe, Joseph Tepperman, Alan Nakagawa (photo: Elon Schoenholtz)

Nakagawa: [shows photograph on iPhone] I found this silver material in the Garment District. The top piece is the little hat. This thing is the vest. The feet go in there. We’re using Joseph and Ariana’s dog, Giuseppe. So, he’s small. I think those dogs were small. They didn’t shoot any St. Bernards up there. So, that’s the piece. Hopefully they’ll accept it.

Bach: Oh, I’m sure they will.

Nakagawa: They’ve accepted everything we’ve sent so far. Hopefully they’ll continue that tradition.

Bach: Well, I’ll definitely include your piece in the tour, if I end up doing the docent thing.

Nakagawa. Cool. I’m considering buying a telescope. It would be great to have a telescope next to the modified tent/capsule thing. See if they could spot any of these mausoleums floating in space [laughs].

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: But I’ve always wanted a telescope for a long time. You’ve been to my house, it’s a two-story thing with a large attic, so it’s really three stories. I was thinking if you put a telescope on that roof, you’d probably be able to see quite a few things. Because it’s already on a hill.

Bach: Yeah, if you get above everything.

Nakagawa: Do you have a telescope?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa. There is such a huge selection.

Bach: Yeah, where do you start? Okay, you go down that rabbit hole. How many telescope buying guides are there?

Nakagawa. The wife of a friend of mine at work is an astronomer. She’s a telescope specialist at Cal Tech.

Bach: Good person to ask.

Nakagawa: I was going to ask her, but when you ask someone like that, they don’t really know the consumer stuff [laughs]. For twenty thousand dollars…[laughs].

Bach: Yeah [laughs].

Nakagawa: If you have half-a-million, you can get this. They’re on a family trip to England right now, so as soon as they get back I’m going to bend her ear on that.

Bach: So, do you consider the work that you’re doing, like this project, as part of a continuum, or are they individual projects that don’t have a lot to do with each other? Or are they all coming out of the same…

Nakagawa: The thing with Joseph?

Bach: All of it. The thing you’re doing for Soundwalk, the Sound Bed, the IsoCube, the thing you did at the Inglewood Library. Is this your collected body of work, or are they individual projects?

Nakagawa: I see it all as coming out of the same kitchen. Definitely. I think my work changed immensely when I started working…you know I’ve worked with Collage Ensemble [Inc.] for a long time. We were always interested in getting artists together and trying to create something. Sometimes that was successful, sometimes it wasn’t. Some of us remain friends, and some of us don’t. But, we weren’t afraid to walk into this safe zone and have at it, speak your mind.

So, that’s what that was about. It’s not so clear-cut in terms of chronology, but, while that was tapering off the last four years, I started working with Kio Griffith, just the two of us. Ironically, Kio and I started Collage Ensemble Inc. back in 1984 with Luchy Garcia. But I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. We kind of bumped into each other in front of Giant Robot on Sawtelle. We started talking. Then we started working together, and we called it Otonomiyaki.

And so this ability to create an ongoing vocabulary of work with just one person was good for me, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where we seemed to change with every project. There were some people who were consistent. Depending on the project, we had to get new, ‘specialty’ people.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: As the only person who stuck with it from beginning to end, I got to benefit from that. Or not [laughs], depending on how you look at it. Working with Kio one-on-one, for two-and-a-half years, was really good for me. It made me focus on the work, and the relationship was okay, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where, as the lead artist you’re also working on the relationships, and you’re wearing two hats all the time.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: You know what that’s like. I’m not interested in doing that anymore [laughs]. And that’s why Collage Ensemble ended. One of the reasons. And then Joseph and I met. So, we’ve been working together for about two-and-a-half years on this one project. I also like that. I think that’s what you’re getting at, rather than with Collage Ensemble and working from one project to the next, totally changing genres and focus and members, and everything. I like this, working with Joseph for a couple of years.

We have this idea that eventually we’ll create this huge thing, but we’re going to take baby steps, project to project. We also get along really well; our temperaments are really good. He certainly has his solo work, and he also does this duet with Ariana, his fiancé, so it’s not like this is his only thing. So, that’s good. The next phase of First in Space is going to take advantage of his day job, where he is a voice-recognition software person for Rosetta Stone.

Bach: Wow.

Nakagawa: [laughs] He’s really good at it. So, he’s tackling this animation program that could be used with the voice recognition, and that’s what’s going to be projected. I think it’s a great marriage for this project. So I’m really enjoying it. I’m excited for the future of this relationship, because we both know that with this piece, if we get to do it for Soundwalk, that’s fine, but we’re going to keep working on it anyway, and eventually, a year or two down the road, we’ll do a bigger installation.

Bach: Yeah. Write a grant proposal, have it done somewhere like the Hammer

Nakagawa: Something like that would be awesome. But, going back to your original question. One of the things you asked in your question: does this all relate to each other? Definitely. Definitely. With Collage Ensemble there was also this sociopolitical thing happening. Intentionally, or unintentionally, getting people from different generations together, various disciplines. Even non-artists, sometimes. Certainly different ethnicities. Putting all that together was the exciting first step of any Collage Ensemble project.

Collage Ensemble Inc. circa 2000: (left to right) Alan Nakagawa, Brandy Maya Healy, Enrique Gonzalez, Chris Albisurez, Roxana Albisurez, William Archila, and Allan deSouza (photo:

Bach: Putting all the elements together to see how…

Nakagawa: Yeah, there was always this bigger social context to the work, and I think, today, I’m not so interested in the inter-ethnicity experience, because, for one, we did it for so long…

Bach: Right.

Brandy Healy and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: [laughs] We drove that nail down as far as it’s going to go. So, my work is more about getting people acclimated to the theoretical mindset where experimental musicians and artists live. Because, I seriously think that if I figure that out, if we could figure that out, that that could be a model for better communication. For instance, my webcast, Ear Meal…the reason I’m personally doing that is for the greater good, to document the L.A. experimental sound and music scene. I would like to eventually donate it to an archive, and I feel that could potentially serve a purpose beyond the one-night performance in my garage.

So, for me personally it’s serving as two things. One, it’s teaching me. I’m getting educated with every show. It’s like a PhD or Masters program. I’m getting a survey of what’s going on out there, ideas and sounds and approaches. So, that’s good. The other thing, and this especially works with the oral history portion of Ear Meal…where are these folks coming from? What is their upbringing? As you know, when we did the interview, we hardly ever talked about the music. It’s mostly about your personal voyage of how you got to my garage [laughs].

Alan’s garage in Koreatown (photo: Glenn Bach)

Bach: Which is the basis of my project. My reflection on turning fifty, and where I’ve come from to get to that place. It’s sort of an autobiographical auto-history manifested through collaborations with friends and collaborators. So, the conversation we are having today informs and leads into the collaboration that you and I will do based on our conversations about our interests and the things that overlap. In a way, it’s similar in some way to what you’re doing with Ear Meal, but maybe for a more narrow…not narrow but…

Nakagawa: Specific?

Bach: Specific purpose. To generate the infrastructure of a collaboration, the themes, the motives, the format, the form of what you and I are going to do, to record it for the catalogue.

Nakagawa: It’s a wonderful approach.

Bach: So, I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the…

Nakagawa: No, not at all. It gave me an opportunity to eat some lunch [laughs]. There is a subtext challenge to this interview: the food’s getting cold [laughs].

Bach: I’ll talk, you eat. So, you asked if I’ve been working on anything. The idea of an artist working in a genre, or category, a body of work that has to be one thing or another. And at this point in my life I’m not really interested in those categories anymore. Am I a visual artist? Am I a poet? Am I a sound artist? Am I a musician? Whatever. I’m just going to do what I do. And the transcript of the conversation, for me, is just as important and just as valid a manifestation of my artistic practice as anything else. The process of having a meal, engaging in a conversation, recording it, and, over the next two or three weeks [laughs] transcribing it, and having that record, that’s just what I do.

So, the project, Atlas Sets, was, at first, an attempt to articulate what I do, where I’ve been, and why I’ve been drawn to the people I work with. A means to an end, but also a process in and of itself that is just as interesting. I wasn’t really expecting that. As the project developed, and I figured out how I was going to proceed, the conversations have become as important as the eventual collaborations that we’ll do, along with the recording and documentation, and performances. But I hadn’t thought of it in terms of oral history until you mentioned it, and now it makes perfect sense. It’s not just a discussion of what we’re going to do and why, but it’s also a conversation about…it’s like a snapshot of where we are, July 1, 2012, in L.A., right now.

Nakagawa: You mentioned that in one of your classes you were dissecting film, using it is a case study, if you will, for various things like teaching about story. One of the things I’m interested in, and you probably know this better than I would, has anyone done any research on the phenomena of director’s notes, interviews, things like that on DVDs?

Bach. Hmm.

Nakagawa: Because, and I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but in America we’re constantly told that our level of education is declining, thereby, in a sense, saying that Americans today are stupid, are dumber than they were in the past.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: And yet, more people have more access to information than ever. What used to be just entertainment is also education. For instance, I recently bought Blade Runner on DVD, the anniversary edition, and there are all these interviews, the making of, and all that, and I’m thinking, for the folks who used to make movies back in the forties and fifties, this must be really weird to them. Right, because it’s about illusion. Why would you want to see the Wizard, the man behind the curtain?

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. But, I think people are generally interested in that, the ability to be engaged in the work. What’s that saying again, ‘the suspension of disbelief?’ To be able to gear in and out of the suspension of disbelief; that’s a mechanism that has to be new.

Bach: There’s an article in my textbook that talks about this.

Nakagawa: Can I get a copy of that?

Bach: Yeah. One author takes the position that American culture has been dumbed down, with reality TV and the devolving of culture from a hierarchical high art/low art division, and that the level of discourse in our society has become degraded. The other author argues that, on the contrary, the American public, the media consumer, has gotten more sophisticated over the years because the things we are watching have become more complex. Video games, going back and forth between the suspension of disbelief and willfully immersing yourself in the world of the filmmaker, but at the same time being able to flip back and be reflective about it, looking at the behind-the-scenes and seeing the green screen and how they did this particular effect, but when you watch the movie again you can set that knowledge aside. So the idea that the consumer can exist in those modes, if not simultaneously, reflects a more sophisticated understanding of media.

Nakagawa. Right.

Bach: So, we’re not getting dumber, we’re getting smarter. We’re getting more complex and nuanced in our viewing habits. Just looking at the content of the shows. They compared Dallas, the old soap opera, with some of the shows on now, like Game of Thrones, or The Wire, or Lost, and the multiple narratives and character arcs that are going on in these contemporary dramas have become very sophisticated and convoluted, and viewers are demanding and expecting these complex narratives. Whereas, if you watch some of these shows from the 1970s and 80s, they’re extremely simple. Talking about genre in the class, and how genre is this interface that allows the viewer to quickly grasp the scope of the narrative.

Okay, you go see a western. So, you have this expectation of a singular hero with a dark past, in the wide open spaces of the American west during a certain time period. So, there are all these conventions and tropes the viewer already expects. And the classical Hollywood narrative of the studio system of the thirties and forties counted on those very predictable genres, knowing the shorthand, the easily replicable skeleton on which they could slot in varying details, so that they could crank out hundreds of these films, just by changing a character name or detail. But now, maybe because of postmodernism, because of Tarantino, the idea of genre is…we still appreciate those categories, those easily recognizable motifs, but we’re also hungry for cross-pollination, and we have the ability to go deeper, to understand more complex narratives.

Nakagawa: Maybe in the future we will watch a show, and there will be a sidebar of the psychology of the character and also the actress.

Bach: Yeah, it will get to the point where we can simultaneously…instead of going back and forth, watching the film and being entirely in it, and when it’s done watching the behind-the-scenes featurette to get a different experience, why not combine the two to begin with, watch the film in a suspension of disbelief, but at the same time also be aware of the structure, aware of the green screen, the multiple takes that they used, the actors improvising their lines. So, the idea of a succinct, intact product from beginning to end is no longer rigid. How many versions of Blade Runner are there?

Nakagawa: On my DVD there are four [laughs].

Bach: Yeah, so, for example, the three new Stars Wars prequels, and how much grief they got because they weren’t very good, to be able to go in and restructure the narrative to fit your own…to go in and completely re-dub all of Jar Jar Binks dialogue, different voice, different accent. Or re-cut the scenes altogether in this different mix of the film for your own idiosyncratic purposes. Does it then become a performance? I don’t know.

Nakagawa: I like the audience participatory aspect of it.

Bach: It’s not quite ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but I think the influence of video games and the non-linear, non-fixed narrative is something that has yet to be explored on the blockbuster level. What if James Cameron had dedicated his resources and his money to that, instead of the spectacle of a story [Avatar] that was actually very ordinary and pedestrian?

Nakagawa: Yeah. I think walking towards that arena of focus is something that…I think I’m walking towards that. I’m not sure it’s empowering people; I think it’s offering the audience tools that are beyond just the work. That’s why I’m interested in what people have to say, director’s notes, things like that, in making work. For instance, the piece that we [Otonomiyaki] did, Ginger and Mary Ann, the two bicycles that are fuzzied up to be portraits of those characters from Gilligan’s Island, and they have fishing poles with plastic water bottles on the end, and there are lots of valves and things that jingle, so as you ride them through the streets there’s a clanging and ringing that you can control. It’s a two-bike performance; anybody can get on the bikes.

There are a couple of things going on. There is the actual aspect of making sound, the entertainment-interactive thing that happens, the recognition of bike culture in L.A. and the arts, there’s the nostalgia of Gilligan’s Island, there’s the sexual fantasy of Ginger and Mary Ann. The year when we did it, the gay marriage initiative got canned in California, so in our own heterosexual way we were saying something about that. But, above and beyond all that, it was humor. It was a funny piece. People, whenever they saw it, especially when they were riding it, were laughing.

Bach: Right. I remember that.

Nakagawa: I think laughter is really important because it’s the natural alcohol. It opens your palate, lets your guard down a little bit, opens you up. You become a better listener, or you can. Becoming a better listener is key to why I am drawn to the kind of work that I’m making right now. I don’t know a lot about world politics, but what little I’m hearing seems to be challenged by listening.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: The ability to really listen. Now, maybe a lot of people are consciously not listening, because they have their own agenda, and they want to push that agenda. Traditional political practice is that you just keep pushing your agenda and push to the point where you win. And so, all of these genres, these professions that hold up the political fabric, are also geared toward this, commerce, trade, law, attorneys.

I was listening to something recently about relationships, and this one example of a husband and wife getting a divorce. They were on good terms, they understood where they were, and they said, “This is how we will do it.” She made more money than he did. So she said, “I’m going to give you enough money so that you can have an apartment near where I live so that we can be both close to the kids.” They didn’t know how to get a divorce, so they asked a lawyer. And the lawyer said, “No way are you giving him money for an apartment,” and so it grew into this bitter fight, and it even went so far as to pin the kids against each other. Clearly, had the attorney asked, “What do you guys want? Okay, this is how you can do it,” as opposed to, “She’s my client, so I’m going to do this.” To me that was an example of not listening and this whole idea of how all of these professions are geared toward…

Bach: Implementing.

Nakagawa: Implementing. Not listening. And I see that in the bigger picture of the political spectrum. The worldwide political spectrum is ill because of this virus that has been growing for centuries. So, in my own little way, I was thinking that if I could take this genre that I love, that I’m so passionate about…because, even to this day, I’m not exactly sure I can fully articulate to a novice why I love experimental music so much. So I thought if I could listen to all these people who I respect talk about why they do it, that that would help me to figure out the words I need to use to explain why I love this music so much.

Bach: To a layperson or someone who’s unfamiliar with experimental music.

Nakagawa: Right. What I hear most, if not all, of the artists talk about…because one of the questions that I ask near the end of the oral history…I’m eventually going to donate this to an archive. My dream is that somebody, years from now, uses it as something to learn about the music. Whether it’s a research student or somebody who heard something on NPR, and they don’t know anything about that music, and they stumble on the Ear Meal archive…so, the question is, “What would you say to that person?” When they [Ear Meal artists] talk about their history, there is usually a point where they discover this music. “If you could go back and speak to yourself when you were twelve and you heard that Cage piece for the first time, and it blew you away, is there anything you would say to yourself?”

And it’s interesting to hear what they say. In my own little non-academic way, I’m trying to come to grips with how I can use my art to help people communicate better. How can I make the world better? Unfortunately, I’m very ‘John Lennon’: humanity I want to save; it’s the people I can’t stand [laughs]. I’m aware that I have that problem, so I’m always working on that as well. I think that’s why I work in public art. I’ve been at Metro for twenty years. I think that’s my specialty, to go into a situation and help bridge the gaps.

Alan at Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is now retired from Metro.

Bach: Right, because you’re fluent in both cultures. You’re fluent in the corporate, government sphere, and you’re fluent as an artist, and you can be the facilitator.

Nakagawa: And why is that? Because, I think, more than most of my colleagues, I’m a better listener. I let people talk. I don’t stop them in mid-sentence so I can interject my thoughts. I think that’s very important. I see it done all the time. It drives me nuts. But, I know where it comes from. They’re impatient, or they know what they want already so they just want to get to it, and they really don’t care [laughs] about what you want.

Bach: Or, it’s their inability to keep a thought fully formed for any length of time. They’re afraid that if they don’t get it out, go on the record, that they will flub it somehow. So it’s really important to them that the other person hears what they are saying, but they don’t realize that a conversation is an organic thing and it’s okay if a thought disappears or gets mutated and you aren’t able to articulate it exactly the way you thought you wanted to.

Nakagawa: You know the device to make that happen and not demean the path that you’re on…now, of course, as we’re talking about this, we could easily substitute jamming together…

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I feel like there’s something in the construct of our work that is going to be helpful to a larger body of people, and in simple terms it’s about listening, or the mechanics of listening, the social politics, for a win-win situation. Everyone always talks about a win-win situation, but we hardly ever see one [laughs]. Because of this illness that I mentioned earlier.

Bach: People think that the stakes are one way, but really the stakes aren’t as dire as they think they are. “Why is it so important to interject or implement your vision at this point in time? What do you think you’re getting out of it? Don’t you think it’s okay to let the conversation go where it goes?” I think people misjudge the stakes. It’s a process, because listening is a skill that you have to practice. And I’m guilty, like everyone else, of slipping out of the moment, daydreaming, imagining how I’m going to respond, and I lose the connection, and I find myself snapping back.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: And I feel a little guilt…

Nakagawa: But being able to snap back is good.

Bach: Yeah. But it’s something you have to be aware of. It’s a mindful practice of non-judgment.

Nakagawa. It’s so hard not to judge.

Bach: Being mindful, being present, you slip out of it, you daydream, and monkey mind takes over. But then you snap back and remind yourself that it’s not a judgment, you shouldn’t feel guilty, you’re not a bad person, and you simply return to the present. It’s just a thought. For me, that’s a model for music makers and improvisation and the collaboration that happens when two or more people come together to make a musical statement.

One of the most profound discoveries that I’ve had recently is what we’ve done with SCSE, with each person having his or her own amp, setting up in different places. We disrupt the traditional hierarchical relationship between audience and performer, where the performer is here up on stage, and the audience is here watching, and it’s this linear thing. We first solved the problem of the mix by taking everyone out of the same P.A, the same stereo mix, so we solved that.

Nakagawa: That’s great. I love that.

Bach: And then we solve the top-down aspect of us presenting this music to the audience by spreading out around the space. And, by doing that, it necessitates each one of us in the ensemble to listen more carefully, because we have to listen to our own sound coming out of our own amp and what other people are doing in the space…

Nakagawa: Especially if they’re clear across the room.

Bach: Yeah, it’s a remarkable transformation of the mix, and the mix is something that I’ve been interested in recently. When you talk about helping people communicate and how you do that…I think one of the things I’m trying to do, similar to that, is bring an awareness, even if it’s just for myself—but I’m hopeful that other people are getting it—of drawing attention to the relationship of the sound source and the listener. It’s a communication through a channel where the sound originates at the source and propagates through the medium and interacts with the space, and by the time it gets to your ears it’s been entirely transformed by the space.

To me that’s a magical thing. It’s beautiful. These sound waves go out, they bounce, and they mix with other sounds. It’s the mix. It’s the natural mix of the soundscape. The soundscape happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, everywhere. As musicians we set up and alter it by adding additional, purposed sounds to the existing ambience of the space. So, where does our performative soundscape reach the level of the natural soundscape, where they meet and mingle, where our sounds inform and alter the natural soundscape, which, in turn, informs our performance? And are they are even separate?

So, I want to bring to the audience an awareness of that interrelationship, without lecturing on acoustics, psychoacoustics, or reverberation. I think that just by the way we spread out around the space automatically gets them into a different frame of mind. They have to do a little bit of detective work. Or they give in and close their eyes, and let the performance wash over them. Whether SCSE is active or on the back burner, that revelation alone has been so important for me in what I do and what I’m about. And that becomes my work. That becomes what my work is about. The subject matter of my work and why I do it.

So, it’s self-reflective, but not necessarily formalist, or modernist. How do all of those things come together with what we do? Because you were talking about this joy, this humanistic effort through your art to bring people together, or bring them into a space where they are more open, understanding where people are coming from, or appreciate an experimental music situation, creating the setting.

Nakagawa: A piece I did last year, for one of the CicLAvias, the piece was called Sound Forest. You had to apply and propose a project, so they accepted my proposal. They gave me this little island in the Garment District on 9th and some other street. It wasn’t big, maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. A triangle with a big sign on it. I installed twelve cymbal stands with either a found object or percussion instrument on each stand, with a mallet or drumstick on a fairly long cable.

The city workers put safety barriers, the folding kind without the light, around the area so that cyclists wouldn’t…maybe they thought people would run into this island, I doubt if they would…so I made signs on the barriers that said “Come Play,” both directions, east and west. I set up right across the street at this pizza place for the next six hours, and people would come up to me and talk, which was great, but I was digging watching people on their bikes go up to the island and negotiate their relationship to what the island was.

Some people got it [snaps fingers] and instantly picked up on the thing and started banging on it, and others just looked around and were like, “Are we allowed to…is this okay?” More often than most, someone was already playing, so that was an invitation, “Oh, this person is playing…”

Bach: It gave them permission.

Sound Forest by Nakagawa at Ciclavia 2011 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: This whole thing of getting permission. That’s a very important word. Permission. Because in art, the permission norm is so drenched in museum visiting. The kind of work that I do, I want to melt that away a bit. I go to museums a lot, as do most of us. I had an experience at LACMA once [laughs]. There was this flat-file drawer, I think it was next to the Schwitters, so I knew there were more collages in that drawer, or posters. So I went up to it and start pulling them, and the guard comes and he yells at me, “You can’t touch that.” And I said, “What do you mean, it’s a flat file with artwork in it. Aren’t we supposed to see the artwork?” And he said, “You’re not supposed to touch the artwork.” Okay [laughs], and I walk away. And that experience was so important to me because the first thing I think of is “I’m the one with the MFA, the artist. Don’t tell me I can’t touch this flat file.” But, I’m also a citizen.

So here’s the hierarchy, the authority telling me I can’t touch it. And, of course, they are the authority; they could arrest me if they wanted to. And so, I’m not going to jail just for a Schwitters piece, so I walk away. The second thing I was thinking was, “Wow, how many people has that guy told not to touch that flat file. Not even can you not touch the painting, which, of course, I totally agree you shouldn’t touch the painting, but you can’t touch the thing you’re supposed to touch. How many first-time museum-goers have been turned off by that guy’s ignorance. And it might not be ignorance; it might be his supervisor who told him.

So, I don’t want to be part of that art mechanism. I don’t like that at all. I think that’s why I like my job, which is public art. Mind you, it’s become very conservative in the past couple of years. But in the past we wanted people to touch the work. We wanted people to engage in the work. We don’t quite have that in the past couple of years because of a conservative maintenance fear that we have as an agency and as a field.

Bach: And liability, I’m sure that plays a part.

Nakagawa. Yeah. I’m not interested in that. I want people to sit in things, touch things, lick things. I really want them to think it’s okay. I want them to have fun, and while we’re having fun I could tell you something you didn’t know. Or you could tell me something I didn’t know, and wouldn’t it be great if we could have a conversation. Like with Suzanne Lacy’s work; that’s powerful stuff. It’s very committed and it’s very empowering to the participants. And I love those elements of that work. And I want to build work like that. That’s why I gravitate to composing things like Sound Forest, and Ginger and Mary Ann

Bach: The Sound Bed.

Nakagawa: Sound Bed, you know, that was a multi-tiered thing. I fell in love with Integratron that year. I had never been before and I had three visits that year. I just couldn’t believe it. That somebody, a non-musician, had created a piece that is exactly what I want my music to do. I just couldn’t believe it. So, I just kept going. It was like an opium den for acousticians, or something.

Bach: Yeah.

SOUND BED by Nakagawa at Soundwalk 2010 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: So, I wanted to build an homage to that. That’s what Sound Bed was. I also used the bed that my ex-wife and I conceived our two kids on, and all that. We trashed the bed after that night. I told everybody who helped me: this was the last piece of furniture from our marriage. I wanted to use it for Sound Bed, and now we’re going to throw it away.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: It was explained to me that Integratron in its physical construct is a battery. I’m not exactly sure how batteries work, but it has to do, first of all, with the perfect wood dome, the sphere. The cavity under the dome, which was originally supposed to have those metal rods that house the electricity from the self-generating mechanism outside, which he never finished. And then it’s on a part of the Big Rock.

Bach: Yeah, and the ley lines.

Nakagawa. So, it’s actually on the rock, and under the rock there are three rivers. So there are three currents going on, and in that totality as a drawing is exactly how a battery is made. Your alkaline battery, or whatever. So, I love that. Now, could he [George Van Tassel] have really known that the three rivers were under there? Or that the rock was…I don’t think so.

Bach: Yeah, he was tapping into some kind of…

Nakagawa: He was tapping into something. Maybe he did, I don’t know. He was an engineer, so it’s not far-fetched. I would love to romantically think that there were aliens involved [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. We love that story, and we’re sticking to it. Because it’s funny, and it’s exciting.

RED FLAT at the Integratron from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Bach: It’s got personality, it’s charming and quirky, and it generates a lot of interesting narrative. We went there for the first time…

Nakagawa. Oh! When?

Bach: On this camping trip, a couple months ago.

Nakagawa: In Joshua Tree.

Bach: Yeah, in Joshua Tree. On the last day we went to Integratron and did the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Nice. How did you like it?

Bach: You know, Sharon had a pretty intense experience. Our friend Megan did as well. I couldn’t get out of my musician mode, because the docent who was playing the bowls for the Sound Bath…his performance to me felt a little overdone, because he was activating the bowls…and if you manipulate them too much you build up these standing waves and the beats, the wah wah wah wah…for me, those are the types of things I try to avoid in a mix, because that’s just feedback that isn’t necessarily communicating timbre or sonic information that I’m interested in sharing. It’s just a byproduct of the electronic phenomena of using loudspeakers.

So, for me, I wanted to get up, walk over to the guy, elbow him aside and say “Let me get on the bowls and activate a much more subtle performance.” And that was just me trying to control the musical aspect of the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Wow! That’s a really powerful experience, too.

Bach: Yeah, it was. And it seemed a little long. So, I had that kind of experience. I’m glad we did it. I think that’s great, that each person will have an individual experience being bathed in oscillating sound. And just the permission to set aside forty minutes of your life, to lie down and be silent and open yourself to a new experience. That, in itself is pretty cool.

Nakagawa: Did you fall asleep?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa: You didn’t? I always fall asleep towards the end. Which I think is interesting. These frequencies are going through my body, I’m asleep, but I don’t think I hit REM. I don’t remember having any dreams. But, that’s also important to me. So, I was trying to take whatever my experience was and translate it to the mobile thing [Sound Bed].

So, the movement of the truck was taking the place of the three rivers and the wood plank was the dome. The frequencies aren’t reverberating, but they’re vibrating. But it’s like the beds in those old motels where you put the coins in. It’s the time element…I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I didn’t test it out. We finished it a week before Soundwalk. And we never drove more than half-a-block. Lying there at night, looking up, and going around the block really slowly, generally four or five minutes going around, seemed to transform just about everybody who did it.

Now, did it transform them as much as Integratron would have? I don’t know. But I know that it did change them. They did have an experience, whatever that experience was, and I’d like to think that the vibrations had something to do with it, because I specifically used certain tones and pulses. Because when it’s about vibrating wood, it’s no longer about melody [laughs] or anything like that.

Bach: No, no. It’s about sensation.

Nakagawa: It’s about frequencies and pulses. Like Lazy Boy music. So, there’s that. So, the next body of work that I’m working on, and this is completely solo, is based on Royal Rife’s frequencies. My friend, who is a chiropractor, has this exercise program in his office, with all of these machines and steppers, and he has this really great trainer, this big Greek guy [laughs], and I only lasted in that thing for a month. I couldn’t take it. It’s just the wrong atmosphere, but I learned a lot. This trainer found out that I was into sound and music, and I told him what kind of music, and he said, “Oh, do you know the work of Royal Rife?”

Now, he himself is a musician, he plays Greek music, bouzouki, so he understands where I’m coming from, although I don’t think he understands experimental music. And when I explained to him a little about experimental music, he asked if I knew Royal Rife. And I wrote down the name to Google later. He said, “You should research Royal Rife.” And that changed my life. Just that one sentence. “You should research Royal Rife.”

I’ve been working on Rife’s frequencies for about two years now, and I’ve been putting them in paintings and installations, and currently creating a body of sound work based on the frequencies of Royal Rife. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s something that has completely immersed my work. This guy was a scientist and allegedly found the frequencies that kill pathogens; he figured out the frequencies that the pathogens were working on, so he just used the anti-frequency.

Bach: To cancel out the waveforms.

Nakagawa: His research was primarily about that. So he created these x-ray type of machines, but they weren’t x-rays but soundwaves, so they could pinpoint into a microorganism, a very precise area. He also innovated the microscope industry; the perfect guy to figure this out.

The big news, and this was in the thirties, he had one hundred patients who were dying of cancer, and he cured eighty of them, and the other twenty, he changed their frequency and cured them within a given amount of time through very close observation. So, the story is his lab mysteriously burned down, and he was sued by the American Medical Association and basically died penniless. No one really heard about his work until the early nineties when a writer at the New York Times discovered the work and did a short little thing about it. And it just sort of exploded, in terms of the research of Royal Rife’s work, the selling of alleged Rife equipment [laughs], which is probably bogus.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: Now there’s a Royal Rife website where a lot of this stuff is, it’s like a library filled with stuff, so I’m just going through it as much as I can. A lot of the terminology I don’t understand. And the stuff from the twenties, the use of English was so different so it’s hard to understand exactly what they mean. There’s a lot of handwritten stuff, which is hard to read. So, it’s all there, and I’m slowly using it in my visual work and in my sound work. So, of course I’m not really interested in using the frequencies to cure cancer.

Bach: Yeah, yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m not a scientist.

Bach: It’s a translation.

Nakagawa: It’s a translation. A point of inspiration. But I do like the added bonus of using a reference that also points to the political construct of the medical industry, the medical genre in the U.S. This whole healthcare thing; it’s just nasty stuff. There’s the mafia, you know. And I wonder, how many cures for AIDS there are, but they’re not out.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I always wonder. I have a cat allergy. I walked through your house and I was fine. It’s when the cat shows up, and it’s their saliva, I get itchy, and my kids have this too. And I like cats. I wish I could pick them up, but I can’t. How come there’s not a pill for that? It seems like such an easy thing. Claritin works sometimes, but I don’t want to take too much Claritin. There has to be something. Maybe most of the scientists are dog lovers [laughs].

Bach: [laughs] Right!

Nakagawa: What could be the reason why there’s no cat pill out there?

Bach: And it’s almost not important that it’s [Rife’s frequencies] factual…

Nakagawa: No. Because I have no idea if it is.

Bach: It’s more important that it’s inspiring, and it’s an interesting idea. And that it generates artistic activity on your part. It’s like this mode, or node of energy.

Nakagawa: He’s perfect for me, because he has the frequencies, which is sound, and the sociopolitical thing, which is the medical thing. And then I also enjoy the fact that there’s this Tesla thing going on. I like that stuff. I don’t know anything about it, but I just love it. It’s what drives me to sci-fi. Like, one of my favorite movies is Buckaroo Banzai.

Bach: Oh, jeez.

Nakagawa: Yeah. That’s such a goofy movie, but it’s so fun. I’m drawn to sci-fi comedy. I really like that genre of film. I don’t pretend to be a specialist or anything.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I just like that. The gizmo and then the laughter, all in one.

Bach: The mad scientist…

Nakagawa: It’s like rocky road ice cream.

Bach: Weird Science, Real Genius. And I haven’t seen any of these in ages, but Back to the Future. You have this sort of weird, quirky genius; is he crazy, is he on to something? But it doesn’t really matter…

Nakagawa: Because he has the DeLorean and it works [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Well, Christopher Lloyd is in Buckaroo Banzai. So is John Lithgow, who then does Third Rock From The Sun. So, there’s this funny comedy sci-fi thing.

Bach: So how is the Royal Rife stuff manifesting? Are there certain frequencies, like, 80 Hz, or 120?

Nakagawa: 10,000 is very popular.

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: So, I’m drawn to what I know so far. There’s more to be studied, you know. I plan on sticking to it for the next four years. Delving into it, seeing where it takes my work. It’s drawn me to oscillators. I’m very interested in getting a signal processor at some point. I have no idea how to work one, but I thought maybe somebody could teach me.

Bach: Or you just sit with it long enough and figure it out. Now, with the IsoCube, what’s the sound source?

Alan and his IsoCube (photo: Sesshu Foster)

Nakagawa: [laughs] It’s interesting.

Bach: I know there’s a story behind it.

Nakagawa: I put a bunch of stuff in there. There’s one microphone.

Bach: One microphone. So, you’re manipulating objects and the signals captured by the mic and then run through pedals…

Nakagawa: That rig I use mostly with Ear Diorama Ear, with Kaoru [Mansour]. The IsoCube is hooked up to these pedals, and I have another set of pedals that are hooked up to a circuit-bent keyboard, a Skychord, the Utopia pedal. I also have the Glamour Box. I sent it back to him, he said he’d fix it, and that was two months ago.

I don’t know, so I hope he’s okay. I have no other contact info other than the e-mail and the phone number I have for him. I had a friend e-mail him too, without referencing me, and he hasn’t heard back either. I hate to lose my GlamourBox, but I hope this guy’s okay. I’m pretty sure he’s a one-man operation.

Bach: I bet.

Nakagawa: These companies like SkyChord are fantastic for people like us. I just bought the Utopia from a musician in the Universal Studios area, and I asked him, “Are you done with this?” And he said, “Yeah, I got a bunch of synthesizers that pretty much do the same thing. So, there’s no need for it. I bought it for this one project.” So, I took it that maybe he’s a composer who does soundtracks. And I thought, “Yeah, a synthesizer would do this, but it’s not the same” [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Anyway, so I started playing with that. This one has two oscillators on it. The Glamour Box has two oscillators and two modulators. That’s all they are. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, because there are just dials and switches. No screen or nothing. So you’re shooting in the dark.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I like that aspect of it. It’s fun. It has a built-in chance operation. You know the genre of what it will do, but you don’t know exactly what it will do. I like that. And the isoCube was a way for me…because I started as a drummer, and that was the drummer in me wanting to be a guitar player…

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: Because the guitar player gets to play with the pedals. So, [the IsoCube] is a box, you put your hands in there. Lately I’ve been using one hand, and there’s something in there that you play. And it’s usually something that I think would be really difficult to mic with an open mic.

Bach: Yeah.

Alan and the IsoCube (photo: Alan Nakagawa via

Nakagawa: You get feedback, and all of this residual sound, this atmospheric sound through the pedal, which I can’t say never happens with the IsoCube, it does, but less so, and you have more control with the feedback thing. The first IsoCube was a black box, and nobody could see what I was playing. The new box has a window in the front. Double-plated plexi, pretty thick. The intent is for it to be semi-soundproof. It’s not perfectly soundproof because you can put your hands through. I think it’s pretty good. So far it’s worked out really well because the sound that comes out of it is pretty damn pure. It’s pretty close to what’s in there.

Bach: And it comes out of a 1/4 inch jack?

Nakagawa: Yeah. So that’s been my mode of music-making. It’s taken me a long time, as opposed to many of the people who have been on Ear Meal, to relinquish the drumset. To relinquish the instrument you started with. I’m even thinking of selling the drumsets I have. Maybe keep one. I think I’ve finally kicked it out of my system. It’s taken a long time. I love drumming. I love playing drums. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of playing, I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you still playing drums?”


Bach: What is this doing for you?

Nakagawa: What is this doing for me? Keeping my chops up? What for? So, the IsoCube helps me phase into a place I think I should have been much earlier [laughs] in my career. It helps me, because it’s like being a percussionist, but you’re using percussion for sound source.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. Not a maraca.

Bach: It divorces the drum kit from rhythm. From providing…

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: It’s a musical instrument, but one of its most powerful uses is to provide pulse, rhythm, and, a lot of avant garde percussionists do that…

Nakagawa: Yeah, who are wonderful. But I don’t want to play like that. I’m not interested. I recently had Ted [Byrnes]…he was recently on two shows this season. He’s awesome. Tatsuya Nakatani is phenomenal. Joe Berardi, these are amazing players, but I have no interest in playing the drums like that. There are some great folks out there lately, turning the drumset upside down. There’s always going to be rock in me.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I was always a rock player, and I still love singing songs once in a while. That’s always going to be in my blood. I’m never going to be John Cage.

Bach: We do what we do, and we have fun, and we explore the interface we have with music, which is what experimental music is. An exploration. One of the terms I’ve seen used in place of experimental music is exploratory music.

Nakagawa: Okay.

Bach: Getting out of the scientific aspect of it, or the trappings of that term. Because how many people think of it in terms of a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and analyzing the results? Exploratory ties into the idea of looking for meaning, for discovery, for something new, not necessarily new in terms of ‘no one has ever done this before,’ but new to you in terms of “What is this? What is this sound that I’m hearing? What’s happening with this combination of sounds? Did I generate that? If I did, now what do I do with it? The structure of sounds sequentially broadcast, what does that mean? What kind of musical narrative does that generate?”

So, having fun with it. Having a community of artists who feel the same way, or who are at least open to it. That’s why I’ve been so blessed with all the people I’ve worked with over the years, having this shared…aesthetic? Not aesthetic…a shared…

Nakagawa: Approach? Vision?

Bach: Culture. A shared culture of openness and a willingness to treat improvisation in similar ways, with a similar respect. Instead of going into an improv situation and, like you said, imposing. Implementing. “I’m going to do this [mimics wall of sound].” Rather than “I’m going to listen. I’ll see what happens, and I’ll respond, or not, to what everyone else is making, to see if we can have a conversation in the musical moment.” And, as you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Nakagawa: But you’re open to that.

Bach: You’re open to that. And the people we work with share that. And if they don’t share it, we soon realize that we probably won’t work with them very often. Because there’s not a lot of communication. I don’t do a lot of large group improvisations anymore because I don’t like being in situations where I’m struggling to hear what I’m playing. We’re all going through the same P.A., and we’re all competing to be heard, and the stuff that I’m doing tends to be quiet anyway, because I’m interested in threshold, in tones intermingling and having this awareness of where the sound comes in and how it changes as it gets slightly louder. And for that kind of careful listening, it doesn’t really happen much in…

Nakagawa: Right. I read the interview [Atlas Sets] with Jeff and Steve [Roden], and they talked a little bit about that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I think that’s really important. I don’t know if it has to do with our age, or our experience, but I really feel I’m at a point where I’m saying no a lot. The past twelve months I’ve said no to a lot of opportunities. Where, before I would say, “Yeah! I’ll do that! Absolutely!” Lately I’ve been saying, “No, I’m working on this right now, I really need to focus on this.” That’s not the same Alan Nakagawa from ten years ago, twenty years ago.

Bach: There’s a maturity, a relief, a recognition of quality of life issues. I can accept all of these opportunities, do all these things, and, not only that, but seek them out, and I know I’m going to have certain results from those. Do them enough and you see the cause-and-effect [laughs], the type of result that comes from those types of things. It doesn’t interest me…

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: To know that I’ll be put in those situations and struggle to have a musical experience that makes sense for me.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: If it doesn’t make sense from the beginning, I’m probably not going to be able to transform it enough…

Nakagawa: Ah. That’s not good. Why are you there?

Bach: Trying to force it to transform. Rather than working with something that is integrally open and possible to begin with. Work from there, from a good foundation, and nine times out of ten you can get decent results. But if the starting point is already stacked against you, trying to go in and force it to a place it’s not meant to be…I’m not interested.

Nakagawa. Life’s too short. In Ear Diorama Ear, Kaoru is…you know, she’s a fairly established vocalist in this genre, and she’s been doing this for a while. Allegedly she’s older than I am, but I’ve never had the guts to ask her [laughs] how old she is. But, I can’t imagine that she’s that much older than me, but she keeps saying, “You are so young.”

Bach: Ah [laughs].

Ear Diorama Ear: Kaoru Mansour and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: When we first started really working together, there was this point where we became committed: Ear Diorama Ear is going to last a long time. She said, “I don’t want to be a jam band. I’ve been in too many jam bands, and I already know what’s going to happen, and I’m really not interested in that. I need a structure for each song.” So, she comes in with the structure, the piece. And I bring in things that are almost trying to destroy that structure.

And that’s how Ear Diorama Ear operates. We call them songs. They’re songs because she’s singing, and they’re primarily improv, but there’s a structure. So when I was reading Steve and Jeff and you talk, I said “Yeah, exactly. That’s where we are.” But we weren’t there twenty years ago. Back then it was like, “Okay, everyone, bring your gear and then go,” and someone starts. And when I read that I was like, “Wow, you guys are there too.” We can’t do that anymore. It seems like a waste of time. Really. It just seems like a waste of time.

And Kaoru introduced that to me. I think I’ve always had a structure, because, as someone who was trained in the visual arts, I completely gravitated to non-traditional notation, you know?

Bach: Yeah. Right.

Nakagawa: You don’t need the five staffs. So I am completely not a musician based on that. I’m interested in diagramming in my mind the textures, sub textures, and form of the music. I always think of maps. You look at a map, you know where you’re going to go, but you don’t have to take…there are hundreds of paths to that spot. That is what my music is about. Picking what I think is the right path…keeping myself open to what the right path is to that spot. That’s what my notations are.

Bach: It’s an entryway.

Nakagawa: It’s an entryway. It’s a promise to yourself, “This is where we’re going. We’re not going over there.” But, it’s up to me to completely use the tools that I have, which also includes my openness to accept the mistakes and the new things. I think Steve [Roden] calls them ‘wonderful mistakes.’

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m open to that. I think that comes out of being trained in jazz. Being open to…there are always those empty staffs on the notation where you’re supposed to jam [laughs], or take a solo. I love that. So my music is completely about that part of the music. It’s still there; we know where we are, but that’s my job, to fill in that improv area of that specific song. I still approach it that way. And, on top of it I want to make this into a painting, or whatever…so, I’m very interested in that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. Next week [on Ear Meal] we have [The] Royal Us. Which is Max and Heather.

Bach: Heather Lockie?

Nakagawa: Heather Lockie and Max Kutner. Then, after that, the following week will be the last show of the third season, where I will play my latest formation of the Rife stuff. Then I’ll take a seven-week break.

Bach: Because you were at one time thinking that it [Ear Meal] was going to be over, that it was also on its last legs.

Nakagawa: It was. I thought I was going to end it. And then I had a conversation with a friend who works at Smithsonian Folkways. I asked her about donating it [the archive of interviews]. And she said, “A hundred is a good number, but that would never be a big enough number for us.” And I said, “How many would I need?” And she said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think a hundred is substantial enough.”

Bach: Hmm.

Ear Meal intro (photo: YouTube screenshot)

Nakagawa: So, I thought about it for a week, and I said, “You know what sounds substantial to me? Three hundred.” Three hundred shows, three hundred oral histories, three hundred files of photos. That sounds substantial for the L.A. scene right now. So, I said to Mark, “Are you willing to do four more seasons?” And he said, “I’m up for it.” All right, let’s go for it [laughs]. We’ll shoot for three hundred.

Bach: Wow. So now you need to find two hundred more…

Nakagawa: Two hundred more artists.

Bach: Because you’re at a hundred now?

Nakagawa: We’re over a hundred. The first two shows of the next season, season four, will be curated by Craig Cree Stone.

Bach: Okay.

Nakagawa: So he’s going to arrange one show to talk about Southern California Native American sound. And then another one about Urban Indian Southern California sound. Two shows, back-to-back.

Bach: Nice.

Ear Meal HQ (photo: Glenn Bach)

Nakagawa: So, that’s how we’re going to start. So, I guess we’re up for it. Eight seasons [laughs]. I love it.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. It’s a commitment. You know, when we have these little two-month breaks, you feel it. My body reacts. “It’s so cool not to have to do anything this Wednesday” [laughs].

Bach: Because it’s every Wednesday.

Nakagawa: Every Wednesday. Yeah. As you know, it’s getting things ready…

Bach: It’s a lot of work.

Nakagawa: Coordinating with the artists.

Bach: And then the interview. Which takes, you know…

Nakagawa: It takes a lot. But, yeah [laughs]. I try not to think about it too much, because it gets a little overwhelming.

Bach: But, you know what? It’s…

Nakagawa: It’s great.

Bach: Yeah, it’s great, not only because of the project itself and what it represents to you, and why you’re doing it, but also the fact that you now know a lot of people in the L.A. scene. There are very few people you don’t know. Now you’re asking everyone, “Hey I’m open to suggestions.” Find the three hundred; you just need to find them.

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: Because there are so many little micro-scenes…

Nakagawa: Exactly.

Bach: These kids who are doing their DIY things.

Nakagawa: They’re out there. I think it’s an ego boost, when I walk into a room and I’m introduced as the Ear Meal guy, and people say, “Oh, yeah that’s you? I watch that all the time, or I’ve seen a couple of the shows, it’s great, thank you for doing that.” That’s an ego boost. But then I hear the second thing most everyone says, “Yeah, I wonder why no one has done that before. I’m so glad you’re doing that because it’s important for us to be documented.”

I was recently introduced to Lauren Pratt from Cal Arts, who was married to James Tenney. I met her at The Wulf, and she already knew about it [Ear Meal]. And for someone like her to already know about the show…it’s fantastic, and she was so supportive. She said, “Keep going, this is going to be a lot more important than you think it is. We’re all watching.”

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: She said, “There are a lot more people who know about this than you think.” So, I’m hoping at the end of the road, when we officially say, “Who wants this?” That there will be…

Bach: Some actual interest…

Nakagawa: Some major players at the table. There are some obvious places we could put it, but I really want someone major to take this. Because it deserves that.

Bach: Yeah. For sure.

Nakagawa: I’ve seen it done with things like the L.A. hip hop movement, L.A. spray can art, L.A. surf culture, L.A. skateboard culture, L.A. lowrider culture. Now, of course, those have a lot more pop culture significance, media play, or what have you. So, do I think we’re all going to become rock stars? No, but at the very least, at the academic level, it sure would be nice to be credited for what we are, and not overlooked or overshadowed by other communities.

Bach: And it’s a way to frame the discussion on our own terms.

Nakagawa. Yeah, yeah.

Bach: Because it’s in our own words, and a big part of it is your vision, because you’re the one who’s sort of the gatekeeper, the curator, but ultimately you’re transcribing this oral history. It’s going right to the source. You don’t have a journalist coming in after the fact and trying to pick up the threads after they’ve already gone cold. Like, “Who was active in the scene, and what were the relationships between these people and those people?” It’s all there.

Nakagawa: Right. It’s all there.

Bach: Yeah. It’s cool, man.

Nakagawa: I’m still swimming in the ocean. I haven’t seen land yet.

Bach: It’s this phase in the project. It’s still in the making of it. It’s not yet an archive.

Nakagawa: Not yet.

Bach: It’s still a living thing.

Nakagawa: It’s growing.

Bach: It’s transforming. It’s still active.

Nakagawa: We’re not even halfway through.

Bach: What are you, a hundred and ten?

Nakagawa: A hundred and twenty-three. Not even halfway through.

Bach: It will go by.

Nakagawa. It has. So far, it’s gone really fast.

Bach: You sent out that call, and I’ve been thinking about it, trying to think about who hasn’t been on the show. I may have some ideas, people to send your way.

Nakagawa: Yes, please. I really would appreciate that.