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Interview with Milo Fine

interview de milo fine

La publication récente, chez Emanem, d’Earlier Outbreaks of Iconoclasm – double disque qui consigne d’anciennes bandes du Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble – nous incite à revenir sur le parcours du d’abord percussionniste certes mais touche-à-tout Milo Fine. Installé depuis toujours à Minneapolis, il forgea son art instrumental au contact de Steve Gnitka, Derek BaileyHugh Davies, Anthony Braxton ou encore Gorge Trio. De quoi revoir plusieurs fois ses façons d'improviser, comme le lui ont permis aussi les nombreux enregistrements disponibles ici... [VERSION FRANCAISE]

What is your first memory of music? As a child, age 5 or so, I remember going around my parent's small home in a first ring suburb -- their having moved from the inner city neighborhood where I now reside -- singing Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts". Not surprising, given my father, Elliot, was, at heart, an old school jazz musician, who branched out into general gigging, private instruction, drum book authorship, and 41 years with the Minnesota Orchestra. (When it came to all manner of "pop" concerts, he was the Orchestra's on-call guy for drum set.) On the other hand, my mother listened to AM radio, specifically WCCO, a channel, whose playlist, at the time (and for many, many years), was all manner of safe, "pleasant" middle-of-the-road/"white bread" pop a la Perry Como, et. al.

How did you come to play music? Music came to me via my dad, and I ran with it; albeit in the opposite direction. (And, to be clear, he never pushed me to become a musician.) He was an excellent drummer/percussionist and loved playing, but, bottom line, he was a "professional musician". That is to say, music was the means with which he supported the family. Music, for me, was/is something else; as I came to understand it, a sort of ongoing "inner tuning". Ananke. Having no appetite for becoming a "jobbing" musician, or doing what it takes to mount a "career" in the commonly understood sense of the word, I spent most of my life doing other part-time work to pay the bills so could I approach sound without (or, at least with the bare minimum of) personal/aesthetic compromise.

What was your first instrument? Technically, marimba, in my mid-single digits. By early double digits, I moved to the snare drum, and then the drum set in early adolescence.

Is your music the same when you play, for example, drums or piano (to name only 2 of your instruments)? The aesthetic concerns remain constant, or, rather, in a constant state of flux on any number of levels. But as each instrument has different technical requirements (simplifying: drum set - 4 limbs; piano - fingers/feet; clarinets - fingers/breath) and, obviously, produce dissimilar sounds, they lead me into diverse areas while simultaneously informing each other and my process.

Could you make a résumé of your first experiences as a musician (bands, gigs, recordings, etc.) before your first published recording under your own name? All rather inconsequential, actually. In my early adolescence, I initially and predictably went down the rock path, but, within a few years, became quite disillusioned with it. These bands were cover bands, and the gigs mainly consisted of school dances, parties, and the like (including one parade!). The incarnations of the last group I was affiliated with were, however, a bit interesting as we were covering the material of bands who were either lesser known by pop fans and/or who hadn't yet become visible on the radar including Paul Butterfield, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Cream. My dissatisfaction with the limits of this direction (to say nothing of becoming aware of the corporate machinery behind rock) meshed with my first exposure to free jazz (Coltrane's OM and Archie Shepp's MAMA TOO TIGHT) along with Captain Beefheart's TROUT MASK REPLICA. And this in turn meshed with the zeitgeist of that period -- late 60s/early 70s -- to propel me into more creative, improvisational realms. As can be heard on my first record, BLUE FREEDOM'S NEW ART TRANSFORMATION (Shih Shih Wu Ai 1) from 1972, these realms were informed by rock; in particular, more adventurous and open forms of fusion. But, for the most part (inevitable gestures notwithstanding, and, with the exception of certain later projects; most notably, the Teenage Boatpeople; resuscitated in 2009 after almost 3 decades) this sheen dissipated within the next year or so. The only just barely semi-official recording I'm on previous to SSWA 1 was an LP production of my high school concert band as part of the percussion section, playing the usual repertoire of the time; and not all that well as I recall. (And I actually still have a copy of the damn thing!)

How did you meet Derek Bailey? How did he influence you, if he did? We had corresponded for some years, and, as these things go, he was mounting a tour here and asked about opportunities. While never having the appetite to cultivate relationships with arts bureaucrats (but being receptive to them contacting me; which, of course, given the nature of such relationship dynamics, almost never happens), I, at that time ('83) nonetheless had a pleasant enough acquaintanceship with Tim Holmes, the curator (or assistant curator -- I can't quite recall) of a major cultural institution in Minneapolis. (An institution from which, by the way, I had been banned previously for having the temerity to write a letter to their board of directors calling a previous assistant curator on his political bullshit. Ah, the piss and vinegar of youth!) Tim was very amenable to presenting Derek. In the midst of these communications, I broached the subject with Derek about sharing the bill and/or collaborating with Steve Gnitka and me ("The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble") with the understanding that the bill sharing/collaboration was in no way a condition for him to get the gig. (To wit, I made it clear that if he was not interested, we would not at all be offended.) But Derek was very amenable, and so, we met, hung out, and played. In all respects, a most enjoyable encounter. (Two asides from that time together are, for me, anyway, worth mentioning. First, at one point, Derek said something to the effect of how nice it was to be hanging out with a “real American”. I didn’t ask, but the implication seemed to be that, unlike any number of his American collaborators who were well-connected and/or well-heeled, I, with my beat up old car, funky crib [lower half of a run-down duplex], and overall attitude was, for him, refreshing. Second, overhearing a conversation between Derek and Tim concerning what he was reading while traveling, and particularly Derek’s description -- a narrative broken up with all sorts of digressions; philosophical and otherwise -- really piqued my interest. And thus I was introduced to Robert Musil, whose work subsequently became of vital import to me. The book in question being THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES.) Hearing Derek, and other European musicians simply provided more fuel for the fire. In some ways, his approach, which came to be known as non-idiomatic (directed sound as it were), exemplified a more direct link to certain aspects of contemporary classical/electronic music than was readily apparent in most American free jazz. Given that I was already enamored of so-called modern music in general, as evidenced by my having taken inspiration from electronic music/musique concrète in utilizing prepared tapes on SSWA 1, this was striking. And, as I was becoming less interested in formal structural elements, and much more interested in the material extending from it, his work served as a further catalyst for me to jettison "heads" and the like. And, I should make it clear that, while naturally being attracted to specific aspects of what I hear in other musicians, I have always made a conscious effort *not* to emulate other players. And while that approach, as a "school" or foundation, has served some players well, more often than not, it results in derivativeness and dilution; an anathema to something akin to genuine creativity; finding and mining one's own voice.

After hearing Bailey & a given your decades-long collaboration with Gnitka, did you ever try to play the guitar? Actually, I started giving the guitar a shot as an additional instrument pre-Gnitka (that is to say pre-'75), as well as in the early period working with him. (One memorable evening had us doing a guitar duo with me on 12 string and ending up with bleeding fingers.) I don't quite remember how long this flirtation lasted. Perhaps a couple or few years. Besides the 12 string, there was also an acoustic 6 string and an electric. I got all of them on the cheap (and cheap they were!) or from friends. One or both of the acoustic models ended up being destroyed as part of  concerts back when I would get "theatrical" from time-to-time. As part of this flirtation, when I first heard Derek, in, I believe, the early 70s, I subsequently and briefly attempted to integrate aspects of his sound world into my playing. At the time – I was still quite young, and even at that point, a confirmed (essentially unorthodox-based) autodidact – I didn't understand how deeply the ease with which he executed the material was not only informed by his traditional technical background and understanding of the guitar itself, but also by the aesthetics of Webern. So, as I was wont to do, I continued on in my own way until I realized it was not an instrument I wanted to pursue. My parting shot was giving my electric to Gnitka, telling him that as he was doing everything I could well imagine with the instrument, he might as well have it. (He uses it to this day.)

The first record I heard of yours was Ikebana. How do you judge this record now? Is it still a great example of your way to improvise and share in music? Ah, so you came to my work quite late, but, as the cliche goes, better late than never. [smile] That is a truly lovely document, and, yes, it well represents my interest in, for wont of a better word, mature egalitarian instant composing; everyone a leader/everyone a follower as the moment demands, and, as particularly evident in the larger ensembles, employing counterpoint, juxtaposition and even indeterminacy in tandem with more direct/obvious interactions. (I think it's worth noting that, after the "April Radicals" concert, represented by the first track of the first CD, Tony Wren told me that, with my opening gambit on the piano, there was a palpable, if inaudible sigh of relief from the participants as they realized that what I had posited before the concert -- that among us were decades and decades of experience, so let's just apply that and play -- was, in point of fact, exactly what I meant. This truly wasn't to be one of those spotlight-on-the-guest gigs.) That stated the music on IKEBANA doesn't represent all the areas into which my muse leads me. Decades ago, in a review of GET DOWN! SHOVE IT! IT'S TANGO! time, Bert Noglik insightfully commented that the name of the group (The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble) didn't -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- really do justice to the width and breadth of the expression. On the other hand, I have never been interested in a conscious eclecticism, nor am I a postmodern/post-postmodern practitioner of pastiche. What one perceives in my work as I conjoin the intuitive and the intellect in a constant state of flux is, for the most part, just that (what one perceives), and often (thankfully!) surprises me as much as it might the listener.

Is it difficult, for an improviser living in Minneapolis, to meet other improvisers and record label producers? Did you ever think about moving to New York, Chicago, or, why not, London, Paris…? The only difficulty in living in Minneapolis pursuant to improvised music are the difficulties I willfully created for myself. That is to say, my lack of an appetite for salesmanship, hustling, networking; to wit, being a fucking politician. As for record labels, they could be contacted by mail, and while I didn't (and don't) have much of an appetite for that either, I did occasionally reach out. Very early on, I had lovely exchanges with Ed Michel of Impulse!, who, naturally suggested I move to Chicago or New York. A bit later, there were overtures from the Creative Music Studio and, I believe, Jay Stickler of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Distribution Service (later, New Music Distribution Service), to come out east. Several things prevented me from making any move. First, in the same way I did not subscribe to the traditional path of learning an instrument/playing music, I did not believe in the bullshit illusion of New York being the center of the creative universe. Second, my lack of a "careerist" attitude would have resulted in the same vilification, and, eventually benign neglect that I have experienced here. Third, within that consideration, this is, and in spite of how much I may despise it, my home. Fourth, at the time, I didn't want to leave Gnitka behind. And, finally, from that, I've always had wonderful collaborators here. Obviously, I'm still open to opportunities for touring, but, for reasons stated at the outset of this question (to say nothing of the fact that I expect reasonable compensation), I am not generally afforded such opportunities. (Hell, promoters/producers in neighboring states who've got to know damn well that I'm right next door don't even bother to extend invitations).

In Minneapolis, you met (at the time) young guys with whom you recorded one excellent record, For Loss Of. Recording with the Gorge Trio must have been a different experience than recording with, for instance, the musicians on Ikebana. How did you meet and had you heard this band before recording with them? Did you sometimes listen to “noise” music? Actually, recording FOR LOSS OF was a radically different experience than creating the music featured on IKEBANA. I have always been interested in indeterminacy (the child of simultaneity). Along with so-called randomness, it is integral to my aesthetic. For some time I had been thinking about mounting a project utilizing these strategies intuitively in an overdubbed context. However, in addition to just trying to keep my head above water financially, and get on with the work at hand, I had no connections/funding to realize such an endeavor. But, a proposal from the Gorge 3 in 1999 provided the perfect opportunity. First though, let me back up and address your question as to how I met Chad (Popple), John (Dieterich) and Ed (Rodriguez). In 1995, when Steve and I were setting up and doing our sound check for one of our rare higher profile gigs, a young man walked in, and stared at me, wide-eyed. Not being one who has (thankfully) ever attracted fan-boys or groupies, I had no idea as to what he was on about. He approached me, introduced himself, told he was familiar with my work (an uncommon enough occurrence in itself!), had no idea we were on the bill, and was delighted to meet me. Turns out Chad was the drummer for one or two of the other bands scheduled to play. I checked him out during their sound check and, while I didn't care for the music, I was impressed by his drumming. He then approached me about taking drum lessons. (Private instruction was one of the ways I supported myself for many, many years. As I was well aware that my personal approach wasn't something I was interested in trying to teach, nor was it anything most drum students would be interested in studying, my focus was beginning-to-intermediate traditional reading and technique.) The lessons, such as they were, went on for a while, but, as I got to know him, readily transitioned into friendship. From there, I met John, Ed, and their mutual friend Nathan Smith, and, prior to and/or in line with the recording proposal, attended a most enjoyable Gorge Trio concert or set, and perhaps heard some concert or session recordings...

... Concerning the specifics of FOR LOSS OF, the music they had on hand was created by combining/overlaying, treating and editing music from various Gorge sessions, to which they wanted me to add an improvised track. I suggested that I would listen to the music once (taking no notes), primarily to insure that it was something I wanted to be involved in (which, obviously it was). Then, a week or so later, I would add my contributions without listening to their music. I think they had some concerns, but they agreed. So, a week after my audit, they came over to my house, set up the equipment and recorded my track indeterminately in real time. They then took my work, mixed it with theirs, and brought me a copy of the collated piece. I was extremely disappointed as they had mixed me into the next room, as it were. I told them that if this was what they wanted released, then they might as well delete my track. They went back to the studio, did a re-mix, and returned with a wonderful balance of voices, expressing their utter amazement at how my contributions fit "perfectly". (And, I should note that I don't have any sort of photographic memory. I did not remember, nor did I have any idea what was happening with their music as I played.) I would like to think this was, in good if not great part, due to the ongoing honing of the intuitive component my work. But, ego aside, it underscores the nature of indeterminacy; that things just fit together, or, more exactly, processing through our conditioning/wiring brings disparate elements into confluence.  In 2000, following the release of FOR LOSS OF, and with John and Chad having moved out of state, a trio consisting of myself, Ed and Nathan did a number of what I felt to be wonderful concerts. (Unfortunately, the only "live" playing I did with John and Chad were a couple of sessions at my house when they were in town visiting friends.) I don't hear from John or Ed anymore, perhaps in part because they've moved so far up the food chain. Nathan, who's an astrophysicist based in Arizona (and appears on the Ensemble's first Emanem release, KOI/KLOPS) stays in touch, if just barely, while Chad and I keep up a correspondence. And, in a nice example of synchronicity, just as I got your question about the Gorge Trio, Chad, who now resides in Germany, e-mailed me about the possibility of my heading there for some concerts. A bit of a long shot, to be sure, but I'd love the opportunity to finally play with Chad in a public setting. If by listening to "noise" music, you mean Xenakis' PERSEPOLIS, Cage's CARTRIDGE MUSIC, Henry's LE LIVRE DES MORTS EGYPTIEN, Roland Kayn's brilliant cybernetic music, Sun Ra's "Atlantis", Borbetomagus, etc., yes of course. If you mean the rediscovery of noise by essentially hormonal-driven rebellious youth, not so much. But that's primarily because there's a surfeit of crap to wade through to get to something with genuine resonance. And, at this point in my life -- essentially endgame -- I unfortunately just don't have the time and energy for due diligence in that, or any other arena. Plus, I have enough of a library of my own and others' work to keep my ears happy and synapses leaping. (I should also mention that I find the rediscovery of "noise" as silly as that of "silence" [aka "lower case", "EAI", et. al.]. Yes, there has been, and continues to be outstanding music created under these respective banners, but regarding/treating them as "movements", shrines, schools, or, worst of all, dogma, does a great deal more to cheapen rather than underscore their overall essentiality in sonic expression.) 

Can you tell me about The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble, a great project you’re documented fairly extensively on Shih Shih Wu Ai? First of all, why did you decide to call it an “ensemble”? Despite the fact that only 2 of the 7 documents published under the Ensemble's name from '77-'94 featured musicians other than Steve and me, it literally *was* an ensemble.  Throughout the history of the group, which was originally known as Blue Freedom (and, later Blue Freedom's New Art Transformation), the Ensemble has consisted of anywhere from 3 to, on occasion, 6 or 7 members. However, when I started playing with Steve, and even as we regularly collaborated with other musicians, there was a marked focus on the duo. Indeed, for a good number of years, due to the synergy of our work, I considered us to be the core of the group, with collaborators as "guests; a delineation which rightfully dissolved with time. And, I should note here, as I have in the past that "The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble" was not a name with which I was ever comfortable. For non-musical reasons, I chose to cease working with Joe Smith and Rick Barbeau, who were, at the time ('73 or '74),  the other 2 members of Blue Freedom's New Art Transformation. Because Joe had added the "New Art Transformation" tag, he felt that, upon our parting of the ways, the name should be his, or at least that half, and actually threatened to sue me should I go forward with it. I knew he was bluffing, but in order to avoid such idiocy in the future, I opted to put my name out front, so no one else could claim it. (Looking back, splitting the name would have been reasonable. But, given that I was the only original member of the group, and did all the grunt work -- booking gigs, scheduling rehearsals, doing publicity [posters, calendar listings, etc.] -- I felt I had rightfully earned the right to claim the full name.)  I checked with Mark Maistrovich, the guitarist I was going to start working with, and he was cool with the prominence of my name; as was Anthony Cox, who came on board shortly thereafter. Or, I should say, they were cool with it at first. Inevitably and predictably it became an irritation for them, as well as for Gnitka, who was likewise initially OK with it and bitched later on. And, while certainly representing a source point, "free jazz" was, as implied by Noglik's astute observation, also a bit of a misnomer. But you know, what's in a name?

Never heard of Joe Smith before this interview. What recordings you of his would you recommend? I don't think he's all that well represented on published recordings, which is a shame because, when he's "on", he's a brilliant player. He's featured to great effect on Shih Shih Wu Ai 1, but I didn't care all that much for an LP he did with the Am-Am Trio a decade and a half or so later. (If memory serves, more a matter of the overall music than Joe's playing per se.). He's got hundreds, if not thousands of hours of his work on private recordings; much of it involving his interest in formal composition/electronic music, but I have no idea what, if anything, has actually been published.

LPs by the Ensemble were among the first releases published on Hat Hut. How did you met Werner Uehlinger? To answer this question in the proper context, you should have the general back story of my work as a reviewer. Easiest to do that by quoting from an appreciation of the Reform Art Unit, written at Fritz Novotny's behest, and published in issue #200 of Improjazz (November/December, 2013). Scribbling: 
Having begun playing music (outside of school activities) at age 13, I developed an interest in writing about it several years later; an ancillary activity which followed me as I entered the world of improvisation in 1969. I look back with pleasure at the naive nature of the decision to review as it had nothing to do with a career path, but, rather, the idea that as someone who played music, I would be able to write about it with a certain insight. (Of course, at that time, I didn’t realize that people in general had no interest in insight; clear evidence of which can be found in the current, overall despicable state of empty-praise/press-release-style “music journalism”. And, despite the fact that, over time, I had developed a certain enjoyment in sculpting with words, and my writing style had become more, for wont of a better word, sophisticated, I quit reviewing in the late nineties. I simply got tired of pissing into the wind, to say nothing of dealing with megalomaniacs.) Particularly in those halcyon days, I was hungry for sounds elsewhere; to experience what others were doing; a locating of my voice in the larger context, and a desire to support others involved in what was, at the time, “new music”. So, I very actively sought out small labels and lesser known musicians/groups.
Among them was Joe McPhee, and his first releases on CJR. At the time, I had a column entitled New Music in the Minnesota Daily (newspaper of the University of Minnesota), and covered his work there. On the basis of that, Joe and Werner evidently checked out my first 2 LPs -- the aforementioned BLUE FREEDOM'S NEW ART TRANSFORMATION and IMPROVISATIONS (BEING FREE) -- and approached me about being on the label. (As the story goes, Werner's initial plan was that Hat Hut would only feature Joe's work. People told him that wouldn't be feasible, so he was casting about for other artists.) I was, of course, as delighted as I was surprised. (How refreshing that a label was actively involved in aesthetic due diligence. Too many, including Werner not long thereafter, just sit back and bask in the begging.) As I had, at that time, been working with Steve for less than a year, Werner didn't know his playing, but, upon being introduced, was very much taken by it, as was Joe. Thus began our short-lived (3 years plus) relationship with Hat Hut, from which we walked away due to our unwillingness to play Werner's (and, at the time Joe's) capricious games.

milofinea   milofineb

Emanem just published Earlier Outbreaks of Iconoclasm. These are, of course, wonderful recordings, but don’t you prefer to publish more recent recordings of yours? Are these “old” recordings still relevant to the way you envisage music today? Yes, I would prefer to have more recent music published, and, to that end, I'm pleased to note that there are a couple projects of such music in the pre-publication stage right now. (Of course, like the proposed trip to Germany, whether these publications come to fruition is subject to the vagaries of life.) In any case, I am, for many reasons, deeply appreciative that Martin published EARLIER OUTBREAKS. First, is the fact that he was interested and willing to buy the tapes from Hat Hut. (I had no idea Werner was selling off his back catalog. Martin alerted me, and, as is his way, first asked if I wanted to purchase them. I told him no, but was absolutely OK with him acquiring them; first and foremost, because this would get the music out of Werner's hands and into the realm of someone I implicitly trust.) Second, as Martin and I discussed the possibility of a reissue, he was not only amenable to making an attempt to correct a balance issue on one of the Hat Hut H tracks (and did!), but also to include two extra tracks, which Werner had on the master tape, but didn't publish. (Werner assured Steve and me that both of these issues would be addressed, but, characteristically, and without a word, neither were.) Third, as there was too much material for a single CD, but not enough for a double, Martin was agreeable to including the material that was to make up a HORO LP scheduled for release in '81 (and noted as such on Shih Shih Wu Ai 3), but was never published due to the label's untimely demise. As I've mentioned elsewhere, 35 years after the announcement on AGAINST THE BETRAYERS, I'm extremely pleased that WHEN I WAS 5 YEARS OLD, I PREDICTED YOUR WHOLE LIFE, has finally seen the light of day. Perhaps stating the obvious, the music from then to now is a continuum; evolving and in flux; moving "forward" and folding back on itself. I could go into some detail as to what might differentiate the mid-to-late 70s music from my current work, but I'd prefer this to be the province of attentive listeners.

Concerts of the Ensemble are quite different from one to another. You’re talking about “muses”, what are your thoughts about inspiration? Have you a precise idea of how creation “works”? Of course I (thankfully!) don't know how, exactly, creation works. I do know that it is a wonderful struggle to maintain and nurture the creative impulse. As for the "there to here"; the variety of directions explored again harkens back to Noglik's point. Furthermore, it's the result of being receptive to the input of each participant. When one works with people one trusts; that one can count on the bring their all to the work, there is a deep wellspring of possibilities from which to draw. Ironic in this regard is that a group with the name Spontaneous Music Ensemble was actually guided one way or another by John Stevens (and wonderfully so!), while the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble, and all the groups I facilitate, essentially exemplify an egalitarian model.

Milo Fine, propos recueillis entre juillet et septembre 2015.
Photos : Andrea Canter & Stacey Graham.
Guillaume Belhomme © Le son du grisli

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