James Ross interview

From the Prepared Guitar Blog, I’m republishing this interview here.

James Ross 13 questions
Sunday, November 8, 2015

James Ross is a guitarist and composer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., he has studied guitar at the University of Pittsburgh and the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He has studied sitar with Pandit Krishna Bhatt, and North Indian classical music and composition with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.

A composer in a variety of genres, James has written music for orchestral and chamber ensembles, as well as solo music for the guitar and the zhongruan (a type of Chinese lute). He has also performed and recorded electronic and improvised music.

Recent performances as a composer and performer on the electric guitar, laptop and other instruments include sets at The Bell House; at the Small Beast at The Delancey with percussionist Joseph Benzola; a performance with Kyle Bobby Dunn at Issue Project Room; at Pianos with Richard Lainhart; at Glasslands Gallery with Michael Vincent Waller; at Goodbye Blue Monday with David Beardsley; providing live music for Katherine Liberovskaya and Ursula Scherrer’s OptoSonic Tea series at Diapason Gallery in Brooklyn; with video artist Alex Carpenter at The Tank in Manhattan; and at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center as part of the guitar ensemble for Rhys Chatham’s “A Crimson Grail.” A recording of the “Crimson Grail” performance was released on Nonesuch Records on Sept. 14, 2010.

As a classical guitarist, James has performed as a soloist and ensemble player throughout the Northeastern United States. He received a Solo Recitalist Fellowship in 1992 from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and won the 1993 Mannes College of Music Concerto Competition, resulting in a performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Fantasia para Gentilhombre,” at Symphony Space in New York City.

Can you describe an early musical experience that influenced you in some way?

This is probably a fairly common thing among guitar players, but I think it’s worth mentioning. When I was about 12, I saw a TV ad for a compilation album called Superstars of the ’70s. The spot featured a snippet of Jimi Hendrix playing “Foxy Lady.” Just a few seconds. So electric. Incomprehensible to a 12-year-old brain. It got me thinking about what else was out there. And I can’t forget hearing John Fahey for the first time. The tune was “Sunflower River Blues.” Glowing, warm and lovely, but you can hear the Voice of Blind Joe Death, too. Another gamechanger.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

The first was Jackson 5 Greatest Hits, bought with allowance money from my parents when I was about 8 or 9–that counts, right? Still a great, great record. I knew about the J5 from their Saturday morning cartoon.

The last was Tuareg, by my friend, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Benzola.

What are your secret influences or inspirations?

It might not be the most profound of influences, but I love, and get a tremendous amount of energy and encouragement from, watching the films of Ed D. Wood, Jr.: Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and, of course, the unforgettable Plan 9 From Outer Space. The thought of Wood bombed out of his skull on vodka, dressed in angora (and maybe a poodle skirt) feverishly scribbling a tale about space people coming to Earth to save the entire universe from our childish and warlike ways is somehow tremendously inspiring to me.

The takeaway is that Wood got it done. He got his stuff made, and put it out there. He was uncontrollably motivated to do his work, despite the fact that he had little or no support from an audience or the industry–no matter how crazy it all was, no matter how impossible it might have been to succeed. That’s the way to feel about what you do, I think. A lot of us who make experimental music have the soul of a crazed, semi-delusional B-movie maker. Well. I do, anyway.

What’s the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

It’s very difficult to escape having to think about technique in music. Technique just means what you need to do to create or recreate the sounds in your music. It isn’t the only thing that matters, of course, but no matter what kind of music you play or compose –complex and precisely determined, simple and freely improvised, or laptop electronic–you have to deal with how you are going to make the sounds. If you don’t spend some time working it out, it’s going to show.

It would be great to be able to get away from that. There have been many attempts: I’m thinking of works like Stockhausen’s “From the Seven Days”, or La Monte Young’s Fluxus era compositions (“Draw a stright line and follow it”) that try to take the player beyond the circumstance of a performance or the use of any particular technique–beyond who they think they are. Very difficult. I think this is why accidents or surprises in playing are often highly valued. They seem to come from a place not bound to technique.

Maybe someday technology will allow us to simply think music into physical existence. But for now it’s hard to escape from the need for some technical skill you can call up and rely upon–whether it’s the most polished, transcendentally virtuosic maneuver, or just banging on the open strings of a guitar with a chopstick.

What special or strange techniques do you use?

Banging on the open strings of a guitar with a chopstick.

Which are the main pleasures of the strings? What are their main limitations?

The two most wonderful things about strings (and here, I’m thinking about the guitar and guitar strings) are that you can tune them just about any way you want; and that you can control the sound intimately and minutely–vibrato, precise and carefully timed pitch bends, articulations, timbres–in a way that involves a very deep connection to how the string feels under your fingers and how it reacts to your touch. I guess one of the main drawbacks is that sustain and crescendos/decrescendos on sustained notes are kind of problematic. Those things can be done (Ebow, volume pedal, for example), but they are always somewhat less than satisfying for me.

What quality do you most empathize with in a musician?

When a musician can appreciate small, simple things in music, there is a good chance we will be able to understand one another. To me, it is a sign that the person is connecting with what there is to hear, rather than a technique, or a certain composer’s name, or a particular trend in music making.

Which artists would you like to collaborate with?

Just my musical friends who have been so supportive and helpful over the years, Jim Goodin, Joseph Benzola, Jeff Gburek, Jurica Jelic, Steve Moshier, Paul Muller, David Beardsley, Marco Oppedesano, Marco Lucci, Moody Al, John Mondick, John Marcinizyn, Jim Ferla, Dave Seidel, Greg Hooper, Bruce Hamilton, Steve Layton … I know I’m forgetting people. There are too many. I’m sorry if I’ve left you out. I hope time will allow me the opportunity to work (or work again) with all these people.

Also, I want to jam on “Worried Life Blues” with Keith Richards.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

Years ago, when I was a first-year music student, maybe 19 years old, I was listening my way through the classics of modern Western music, trying naively to hear everything, when I came across the John Cage/David Tudor recording Indeterminacy.

I had no idea what it was, what it meant, had no context for understanding it, no familiarity with experimental music or Buddhism, no idea who Cage or Tudor were. As you know, Indeterminacy is a collection of 60 minute-long stories narrated by Cage, with musical accompaniment by Tudor. A story that really hit me was the one where Cage says that nothing is accomplished by writing, hearing or playing a piece of music. It made no sense to me at all. How could someone who had dedicated their entire life to music say something like that?

I asked the person I respected most as a musician at the time, John Maione, one of my guitar teachers at the University of Pittsburgh (whom i still greatly respect), what he thought it was all about. Instead of laughing it off, or telling me it was just a bit of pretentious intellectual weirdness, he said, “Well, I don’t know, but coming from someone like Cage, it’s worth paying attention to and thinking about.”

It was a small moment, but I believe it helped me to form an approach to music that is patient, thoughtful and (when I’m at my best) unafraid of the unknown. It taught me the value of keeping my eye on things I don’t immediately like or appreciate, keeping ideas I don’t particularly trust close by, and realizing that obstacles can be opportunities.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

I did a piece in 2008 called Heaven. It uses the sounds of a pair of cooking pot lids that belonged to my mother–they were purchased in the 1950s and are big, heavy gonglike metal domes. They have a fantastic sound; very clear and consonant, with an unbelievable amount of sustain–almost electronic sounding. I made a series of recordings of the lids–single tones, slow, random attacks, tremolos, etc–and then, using pitch shifting, tuned the clips to a series of pitches in just intonation, and finally layered everything together according to a plan of chords and modulations based on just 7ths. I was heavily under the influence of La Monte Young (with whom I was studying) at the time. What is most surprising about the piece is that it actually seems to work. I’m not sure how good the piece really is, but I was expecting a disaster.

What is the most recent musical experience that has attracted your attention?

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of Thai music recently. Both classical and pop. Absolutely taken by “Wong Shadow Music,” a type of pop music developed in Thailand in the early ’60s –influenced by the English group The Shadows (hence the name) and a lot of American surf and R&B. If you like Dick Dale and dig the sound of the Farfisa organ you should certainly look into this style. I’m not sure where it will lead, but it doesn’t matter, really. This music is just a lot of fun to listen to.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

Two projects wrapped up recently that I’m rather proud of. First, is a various-artist release on the Thirsty Leaves Music label called “…should be feared” (?)

The recording was curated by label founder Moody Al, and contains some challenging, yet irresistably appealing electro-acoustic music. I contributed a setting of the well-known Renaissance tune “l’homme arme.” Also, a vinyl release that’s kind of a retrospective of some of my works from 2010 – 2013 just came out on Mensch Musik, based in Koln. The project was assembled, with austere and elegant artwork, by label owner Marco Supernak.

But currently, I’ve been working on a series of pieces for guitars, electronics and field recordings based (sometimes loosely, sometimes very strictly) on the Gregorian melody “De Profundis”. I’m putting together as many variations as I can, based on different segments of the chant melody. Kind of a stodgy-sounding idea, I know, but it has been inspiring quite a bit of material for me. Especially when bringing the electronic angle into it. Leonin and Perotin might have done something like this if they had access to loopers and Ableton Live. Should be available soon at my Bandcamp page: Mulefield.

Will be traveling to South East Asia this winter (2015-16)–mostly Thailand, and Cambodia (all that Shadow Music had its effect, I suppose), but hoping to spend a little time in Indonesia, too. I plan on trying to work with some traditional instruments to produce … well, we’ll see. Probably do some work with a few of the Native Instruments synthesizers I have.

Why do you need music? Can we live without music?

It keeps me connected to the world. I can’t think of many things in my life that are not related to music in some way. And, no: WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT MUSIC. Go ahead and try …


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