I first met Ryan Purchase at klezkanada. Ryan and I have since played together in a funky klezmer band – The Lithuanian Empire – and we have participated in free improvisation/klezmer workshops with Alan Bern both at klezkanda and at Yiddish Summer Weimar, in Weimar Germany. Ryan is a wonderful trombonist and composer. He toured Canada over the last couple of summers with Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers, and I got to hear this fabulous band both at the Toronto Jazz Festival as well as at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Ryan is currently working on a project entitled Morphology of a Lover. Is that a great title? Ryan has set up an idiegogo page to raise funds to mix, master and release this fascinating sounding project. I recently emailed Ryan a few questions about his music, his insights and this project. I was thrilled with his response.
- give us a little background info about you as a composer and a trombonist
I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, and as a kid I was luckier than I knew to be a part of three amazing musical organizations: the Regina Lions’ Band, the Campbell Collegiate music program, and the South Saskatchewan Youth Orchestra. Between the three, an average week usually consisted of rehearsals for marching band, three concert bands, two jazz bands, a jazz combo, a dixieland band, and a full orchestra. Usually there was some music theory and history in there, too. And I had a private lesson every week from the age of 10 to 24. I had some incredible teachers, and I went through a lot of these programs during their “golden age.” After high school, I wanted to be an orchestral trombonist, and a spot opened up in the Regina Symphony Orchestra. I worked my ass off and won the audition, so during my undergrad, I “worked nights” as the assistant principal trombonist, under the watchful eye of principal trombonist Dick Raum, who’d been my private teacher since I was 13. It was a real apprenticeship, the kind you only read about in books about medieval blacksmiths. I went full-out band nerd and got really interested in music theory, which informed my playing and also led to an interest in writing my own music. I studied enough composition at the University of Regina that I could have finished with a composition degree, if I’d taken an advanced counterpoint course instead of a course on Mahler, but I have no regrets.
I went to grad school for performance at the University of Toronto, and then followed a girl to Edmonton, where I lived for 7 years. During that time I did a lot of freelancing and casual writing, and I realized that I had a lot of issues with the world of the orchestral gig, so I abandoned that career path. Eventually I settled on klezmer and improvisation as my preferred niches, and kept on writing chamber music. People seemed increasingly to dig what I was writing, which felt great. I had a devoted group of players who would perform my music again and again, which was amazing; I’ve met a lot of great modern composers who are lucky to get a piece played twice.
The thing is, I’ve always been a performer, so when I’m writing, I ask “is this fun to play?” and if it’s not, I really have to think hard about why I think it belong there – and 9 times out of 10, it gets cut.
2. what is your approach to free improvisation?
It’s very simple, in theory: I just listen to the music that’s happening and stay open enough to hear what it needs next. That can be anything, including silence. Maybe especially silence. Sometimes my ego goes, “hey, you haven’t played in a while, it’s your turn,” and I think “that’s true, but how would I feel if I was in the audience and the trombonist started playing? No… I don’t think trombone belongs here.” Coming from an orchestral background, I know very well that sometimes the trombones won’t be heard for 20 minutes at a time. And some players get pissed off about that sort of thing, as if the composer wasn’t being diplomatic enough. Well it’s not a composer’s job to be diplomatic at all! Do they think a painter, painting a sunset, thinks “I haven’t used any neon green paint in a while, and I don’t want the tube of neon green to feel bad, so I’d better put some over here”? Hell no! When you’re a player, or a good composer, you’re at the service of the music, it dictates what you get to do next. It’s a dictator. Sure, you can overthrow it whenever you want and you won’t get thrown in prison, but if you’re not first and foremost in the service of the music, then you have no business being on the stage or in the studio. That goes for improvised music just as much as for composed music, and everything in between.
3. what is the role of improvisation in your compositions?
That really varies. Some times I have entire sections that are meant to be improvised, sometimes I’m quite strict. But even within that strictness, I always leave a lot of room for the performer to bring their voice, their interpretation. I don’t know how to write any other way, and I don’t care to. It’s interesting, I’ve had some very talented musicians play my stuff, and if they don’t really pour themselves into the piece, it doesn’t work. Just falls completely flat. Which is really disappointing, I mean REALLY. Having someone shit all over something you’ve created is like watching your kid get beat up after school. But then someone else, maybe even a player with less training and less control over their instrument, really communicates something about themselves through the music, and it’s like watching your kid fall in love. Maybe those are strange comparisons, and they’re certainly hyperbolic, but there’s truth there. After a string of poor performances a few years ago, I made the decision to exercise more control over who gets to play my music. I used to be very happy to put my music out there and let everyone interpret it differently, I saw a lot of beauty in that idea. But there are some players who mistake fragility for weakness, and they just steamroll over the thing, and the only thing they communicate is “I can’t believe I agreed to play this, what’s next?” It’s a real drag. As a performer I really make an effort NEVER to do that. I elevate everything someone’s written for me, to the best of my ability. Even if I secretly don’t like the piece.
In the last few years, I’ve been writing a lot less, and when I have written, it’s been almost completely improvised pieces. And if you get the right performers, they’re great. Performers who listen and trust and support. I’m not interested in listening to or playing with anyone else.
4. you have spent a lot of time in Weimar, Germany studying with Alan Bern. Can you tell us some of the things you learnt from him?
Discipline and vulnerability. Those, I think, are the cornerstones. From discipline comes the ability to listen, to improve my musical vocabulary, to know when to state what I need and when to let go of what I think I need. From vulnerability comes trust, compassion, and not always needing to be right. Once I experienced the musical rewards of all these things, I started to wonder whether they could be more generally applied to my life, and I’ve been having a really great time ever since. Those sessions in Weimar have changed my life.
5. when you’re playing free, do you prefer to have a “plan” which you discuss beforehand or just go for it and see what happens? do you talk about if afterward?
I’m a pretty analytical guy, so yeah, I always like to discuss it afterward. If I can get my hands on a recording of what just happened, I’ll listen to it obsessively. Over and over. It’s not narcissism, or if it is, I don’t care. It’s less about pumping myself up and more about having the chance to relive a great moment. Who wouldn’t do that?
In terms of having a plan, I think in general, yes, I like to have one. I like parameters, limitations, rules. Even if they get broken, that’s a statement. I don’t think we’d be as impressed with Michaelangelo if they’d just thrown open the doors of the Sistine Chapel and said “do whatever.” Some of the least interesting art I’ve witnessed, or made, happens when the leader gives everyone carte blanche.
In order to feel like I can be part of something meaningful without any agreed-upon parameters, I need to know the other people’s playing pretty well. In fact, that’s something I like to have in place either way, but especially when we’re just “going for it.”
6. tell us about your latest project and your indiegogo fundraising campaign
It took me a long time to figure out how to talk about it. It’s hard to describe without explaining the whole process. But from the point of view of the listener, it might be best to call it “improvised chamber music.” It’s a recording of me and 5 of my favorite improvising musicians, working together to play 9 distinctive movements of a 40-minute piece called “Morphology of a Lover.” It’s a musical portrait, but not of anyone in particular – each of us had to conjure up our own idea(s) of a lover, real or imaginary, and we never once talked about what those ideas were for each of us. Each movement is one part of that portrait; the movements have titles like Her Fingers, Her Breasts, Her Hair, Her Wings, Her Tentacles… things like that.
But what really makes the project unique is that none of the musicians were in the studio at the same time. I recorded them one by one. And there’s a bit of a story behind why I made that choice: originally, this recording was to take place in Germany, with completely different people (except for Christian Dawid, who was part of the original concept and appears on the final product, and I’m so lucky he’s such a globetrotter and has a Canadian girlfriend). I went over there with recording gear, and I couldn’t find a good recording space, and nobody’s schedule lined up, and I discovered my computer wasn’t really up to the task, and I got sick, and so on and so on. And eventually I had to make a decision: do I summon up every bit of inner strength, and pool all my resources into forcing this thing to take place, or do I accept that the universe (internal, external, who knows) is telling me “not now”? And I’m so glad I chose the latter. It wasn’t laziness or a lack of drive; it was acceptance. I really want to do something with those original players someday: Alan Bern, Sasha Lurje, Vanessa Vromans, Alina Bauer, Szilvia Csaranko, Francesca Ter-Berg, and others – but everything was telling me this wasn’t the time. I called the whole thing off and then got a little depressed about it. Then I realized, “this is my reality. All my favorite people to work with are spread out all over the globe, in Latvia, Argentina, Montreal, Berlin, and me in Ottawa… it’s crazy to think I could ever get them all in one place at one time. What if I scaled it down to just Montrealers and Ottawans, and built a compositional structure that was well-suited to recording one person at a time? I was instantly pretty excited by the idea.
I recorded myself improvising, using the movement titles as inspiration. I went to Montreal and recorded bassist Joel Kerr improvising, sometimes with my pre-recorded tracks in his headphones. Then I deleted that original track of myself. Next, I recorded clarinetist Christian Dawid in Montreal, sometimes with Joel in his headphones, and then trumpetress Amy Horvey, sometimes with Joel or Christian in hers. I came back to Ottawa and recorded drummer Mike Essoudry, sometimes with Joel, Christian, or Amy in his headphones, and then I recorded accordionist/singer Megan Jerome the same way. Finally, I recorded myself, either solo or playing along with one or more of the other 5. I ended up with about 7 hours of material. I broke the 7 hours down into hundreds of little chunks, from 12 seconds to 5 minutes. Then I began the really fun part of reassembling those chunks into a cohesive piece, one movement at a time. I wasn’t sure if I’d end up with music that fit my original ideas and titles, so I was prepared to let go of it and let the music dictate the title. But it really worked, better than I could have imagined.
The next step is to have it professionally mixed and mastered by Matt Ouimet, get the CD design, and physically produce the CDs themselves. The musicians also need to be appropriately compensated.
The campaign can be found at here. With indiegogo, as with many of these crowdsourcing sites, contributors get certain “perks” or incentives for donating at a specific dollar level. I’m offering album art suitable for framing, signed CDs, poetry on postcards, bonus tracks, and for 5 donors at the very top level, I’ll create a piece of music just for each of them, using the same techniques as in “Morphology of a Lover.”
I really hope everyone digs it. I think it represents some of the best work I’ve done.