Matthew Shipp solo in Hungary, 2008:
I’ve known Matthew Shipp for a decade, maybe a little longer. I first met him at the Vision Festival, an annual gathering of musicians, poets, dancers and painters all working to keep the spirit of the Sixties avant-garde jazz scene and its associated arts (painting, poetry, dance) and politics alive. Steven Joerg, head of the small, Brooklyn-based free jazz label AUM Fidelity, introduced us, and we got along right away. He’s easy to get along with – sharp, friendly and funny.
I’ve written about him on a number of occasions. The first big one was when I made him the subject of one chapter in my book New York Is Now, which was published in September 2001. At that time, he had just released the album Pastoral Composure, his second for the Thirsty Ear label and his seventeenth or eighteenth disc under his own name in the span of ten years (plus eleven – with more to come – as a member of the David S. Ware Quartet). He told me in our first interview that it would be his final release as a leader.
It was nothing of the sort, of course. It didn’t even mark a slowing-down of his output, as between 2000 and 2010 he released a dozen more CDs under his own name, played on eight or nine more (including three live albums) for the Ware group, and participated in six or seven collective sessions led by electronic duo Spring Heel Jack and hip-hop producer El-P, among others. But in retrospect, it does seem like the turning of the decade marked a change in Matthew Shipp’s relationship with the press, the jazz industry, and with the jazz audience.
In the last few years, he’s made a point of throwing deliberately provocative quotes into his interviews at every opportunity. He’s done it with me, describing the Ware quartet as “infinitely superior to” Wayne Shorter’s group in a 2007 interview for the Village Voice, repeating it twice and making sure to tell me the line was for attribution, and saying of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock (in relation to his own then-new, now-disbanded trio) in Jazziz in 2009, “They’re relics. We are why the music lasts right now. What this album represents is state-of-the-art piano trio music, and somebody like Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock cannot get on the level that something like this is on.” He was insistent that I use that one, too.
As of early 2010, this behavior reached a sort of critical mass, no pun (and no reference to his album of the same name) intended. In promoting his solo CD 4D, he was the subject of cover stories in Signal To Noise and Jazz Times, and in both pieces he again went out of his way to throw elbows – reaching a kind of peak when he told the Jazz Times writer, David Adler, “[F]uck all of them. And I mean that – fuck Herbie Hancock, fuck Wayne Shorter. On a certain level, fuck Louis Armstrong…They obviously have a place in history and it’s obviously deserved. But I’ve got to do what I do, I’ve got to say what I need to say to market myself the way I need to market myself, and if it means I say something that’s perceived as nasty about an icon, then I’ll do it, and I don’t really give a fuck…Sometimes when I do interviews I’m sort of playing a character. I mean everything I say, but there’s a slight schizophrenic element. People have to realize that being a jazz musician is very frustrating…this historical thing is so heavy in jazz that it’s just distressing sometimes. You just want to relax and be in the moment. To have the whole weight of history being bandied about, all the time – that leads you sometimes to that extreme statement.”
That’s actually a subtle, nuanced multipart statement from a very smart guy. There’s a lot in it I agree with. One’s public image is frequently a role to be played, and this is particularly true of performing artists. And the weight of history is extreme, especially when critics insist on piling it on all the time. But it’s easy to expect your average jazz fan, someone into whom respect for the music’s elders has been hard-wired, to basically stop reading or listening once somebody starts pissing on graves – or the shoes of living players. Actually getting a discussion going about whether the star system is sustaining or weakening the music (or neither) is all but impossible under the best of circumstances. Come out swinging (swinging like a boxer, not like Ron Carter) the way Shipp does, and folks are more likely to shut their ears entirely.
So yeah, I think what he’s doing is actually counterproductive, and in retrospect I regret helping him do it. It certainly allows more people to hear of him, and I’m sure certain editors like it because it causes people to buy the magazine. But I don’t think it helps people hear him, because skittish, hidebound jazz fans are more likely to read these quotes and say “what a prick – fuck that guy” than “you know, he’s onto something – I’m gonna buy his album.” And the irony is, Shipp is mostly railing against living peers, not against all predecessors. He worships Thelonious Monk, speaks reverently of Bud Powell and many other pianists – but only ones who aren’t competing with him for gigs.
The point is, I’ve decided I’m going to stop taking the bait in writing about him. Indeed, I came to that decision when I was making arrangements to meet him at his apartment and conduct the interview for this very article. I’ve noticed from reading the responses in online jazz fora to profiles of Shipp that these quotes not only serve to alienate potential fans, they also distract the writers to whom he serves them up like pastries from asking him about (or at any rate writing about – I don’t know what other questions were asked and answered during their interviews) exactly what it is that he does. And besides, given the limited word-counts available in commercial publications these days (a feature is more likely to be 1000 words than 5000), they wouldn’t be able to deal with the internecine warfare and perform in-depth musical analysis even if they wanted to.
Even without a subject who’s as much of a quote-fountain as Shipp, though, this is a common problem in music journalism. It’s one that might be attributable to writers not actually knowing how to play an instrument or read, write or record music. Since most music discussed in the remains of the music press these days is conventionally pop/rock in its structure and has lyrics, the writer will gravitate toward discussing the lyrics and/or the performer’s personality and how it fits within or bumps up against social roles, genre parameters and (the writer’s, or society’s) expectations for someone of the performer’s race, gender or perceived social class. Pseudo-poetic descriptions of the music, with only vague ideas about how the actual sounds were shaped, will be offered too, of course, but the primary music-critical mode is almost always personality profile combined with half-assed sociological dithering.
I don’t read or play music, though I did study audio engineering. But I’m more interested in talking about what Matthew Shipp does while seated at a piano, or how he sustains a professional career making music, than I am in reproducing another set of quotes about his opinions of his competitors. (Adler, it should be noted, did not choose to argue with Shipp’s criticisms of other players, at least not in print. Within the Jazz Times piece, he offered secondhand dissent via citations of Ethan Iverson of the piano trio The Bad Plus and various unnamed blog commenters, but did not wade into the fray himself. This, too, was playing a role – not that of a neutral party, but more of a “let’s you and him fight” agitator.)
As mentioned above, Shipp’s newest studio album, and the release he’s concentrating on when talking to the press, is the solo disc 4D. But because of his productivity and the difficulty of juggling multiple labels’ release schedules, a live performance recorded in 2004 is just now appearing on disc too. During the 2000s, Shipp explored electronic music quite extensively, bringing samplers and programmed rhythms into his own music and occasionally appearing as a sideman on albums by DJ Spooky, El-P and other, lesser-known musicians. Nu Bop was one of his earliest electronic experiments, and it only kinda-sorta holds up. But the band that played on the album – saxophonist Daniel Carter, bassist William Parker, and drummer/laptop artist Guillermo Brown – played some shows, too, and one of them is documented on Nu Bop Live.
When working with electronic rhythms and production techniques, Shipp’s piano style changes, becoming much more loop-driven; he fixates on short phrases, banging through them eight or sixteen times, as the rhythm cycles beneath him. But onstage, he reverts to his out-jazz self. The centerpiece of Nu Bop Live is a 26-minute take on “Nu Abstract,” a piece that was less than four minutes long in its studio version. During the performance, Shipp assaults the keyboard with great force, and even reaches into the body of the instrument to pluck the strings, creating a harpsichord-like sound.
This is a technique he regularly employs these days. I saw him perform at the downtown New York performance space Roulette on January 28, two days after 4D’s release, and he did it then, too, as part of a single hour-long exploration of pieces from the album and older compositions.
Actually watching him play is fascinating. He hunches and sways, delivering hand-over-hand swipes at the keyboard and striking powerful low notes from the far left side; sometimes his mouth drops open and he pants with great force. At Roulette, the instrument itself rocked back and forth on its wheels, the wood creaking as he attacked. His tone is instantly identifiable. His long fingers make a concussive impact on the keys, and he chooses full, liturgical notes and booming, Gothic chords punctuated by sharp individual notes from the far right side of the keyboard. His booming eruptions transform into looping melodies followed by long runs up and down the keys, but then single notes stab out, interrupting his own flow as though his two hands are disconnected from each other. It’s a sound almost like stride piano, but with dark, Russian chords. It made me think of Prokofiev playing Monk, or vice versa. I wrote the phrase “beautiful but not pretty” in my notebook as I watched and listened.
Despite the obvious and very deep spirituality of Shipp’s connection with his music, and the communication that music serves to create between him and the larger universe, his approach to the instrument is very different from that of, say, Cecil Taylor. Taylor has been quoted as saying, “You don’t just walk up to a piano.” But Matthew Shipp does exactly that. At Roulette, he and I stood two or three steps from the instrument, calmly talking. When it was time for the performance to begin, he simply sat down and dove in.
“Yeah, there is a showbiz aspect, ’cause I’m onstage as a performer,” he told me during our interview, some weeks prior to the Roulette show. “But my persona as a player is someone that comes out and sits down in a very concentrated manner, says what I have to say and gets up and leaves.”
I pressed the issue somewhat, offering the Taylor quote as a counterexample.
“I’m assuming he means his dancing, and he writes poetry also, all of that,” he responded. “It comes out of his lifestyle, and to play is just part of the lifestyle. So it’s everything, the whole matrix of who he is, being this weird black American artist. I think that’s what he meant, that it’s this all-encompassing thing. And it’s an all-encompassing thing with anybody, I mean, David Ware used to say when he plays he wants it to be just like he’s in his living room playing, meaning that the language is so deep into you that the actual going onstage is not really like a performance. It’s being demarcated in a certain way because you’re in a performance space and there’s an audience sitting there, but you are articulating to the audience who you are, so there’s a relaxation involved in it. There’s no pretension, you’re just being yourself. And if that involves a dance, or getting up and reading a poem before you play, so be it. If it doesn’t, so be that, also.”
The intimacy of solo playing, and of performance, is at the heart of 4D. The album was recorded in front of a small, handpicked audience who were there to provide a human sounding board – they were sworn to silence. Shipp played for three hours, “pretty much continuously, with [short] breaks in between,” and ultimately chose 16 pieces, adding up to an hour of material.
This was a relatively quick and painless session for him. “Usually it’s about eight hours, but a solo piano album, there’s not a lengthy soundcheck, there’s just me,” he explains. And though he knows his way around the studio, he didn’t inject himself into the preparations; he just waited for the moment, and played.
“I’ve always just left it up to the engineers how to mic the piano. I didn’t this time, because of where we recorded it, but I usually listen to playbacks, and except for telling them where to place mics, I tell them what type of sound I’m after and if they have to fool with the mics to get it, they do it, but I’m just going by the sound I want.”
That unique Shipp sound is voluminous and doomy – the word that keeps popping into my head when I listen to his work is “liturgical.” It sounds like he’s spent a lot of time in church. And indeed, religious titles occur with some frequency in his discography – the term “critical mass” is from nuclear physics, but Shipp was clearly turning it into a pun on his 1996 album, given that the other two tracks are “Virgin Complex” (a tune he revisited on 2004’s Equilibrium) and “Density and Eucharist.” Some references are more obscure – “Patmos,” from 2006’s One, is named for the island on which St. John received his revelation. He’s also performed numerous spirituals, including “Amazing Grace,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “We Three Kings,” and, on 4D, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
He seems almost built to play the piano – over six feet tall, skinny, with long fingers – and he makes the most of his physicality, wrenching himself back and forth over the keys and striking them with the force of a speed-maddened typist. His technique is heavier than more traditional jazz players; he has none of the lightness of an Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, Hank Jones or Art Tatum, all of whom he describes as “real smooth bourgeois players” whose work “lends itself to a classical pianist being able to appreciate a jazz pianist’s technique.” This, and little else, is what he acknowledges owing to Thelonious Monk. He ascribes his technique to extensive training beginning in childhood.
“I spent years and years studying classical piano from an early age,” he says. “I haven’t done it for years and years as far as really concentrating in that area, but I did a thorough grounding in that area. I still maintain perfect hand position, I can bring out melodies wherever they are in the chord or whatever, I have a very close hand type of articulation that’s good for playing Bach and stuff like that. But the thing is, my own phrasing and my own idiosyncratic essence of my own playing has become such a big part of me that I’m really my own creature at the piano now. So it’s my own technique, it’s my own way of being, but I also do have a real solid grounding in how any pianist would be if they played a lot of Chopin or Beethoven sonatas or Liszt or Bach.”
But he has a deep admiration for Monk, for reasons that are almost extra-musical, more about the role of the musician in society and the artist’s loyalty to his muse than the actual sounds produced by fingers on keys. On the day we speak, he’s eager to discuss the subject. “Anybody, to me, that can really just shut out the rest of the world and do their thing in the face of – you might be the only person that believes, and everybody else is telling you you’re wrong, and you just say fuck everything. That’s an inspiring story, especially since it worked out in his case. Also, what I like about Monk, and this is a real pianistic thing…once you deal with Monk, you have to deal with modernism and a degree of Africanism entering into a different rhythmic thrust, a different way of dealing with technique, where the model is not specifically from a European source.”
It’s a little weird to hear Shipp talk about Africanism, though, because it’s so thoroughly absent from his own music, at least to my ear. He’s not a gospelized player at all; even when performing with David S. Ware, a saxophonist who’s quite firmly in the post-Rollins/post-Coltrane/post-Shepp/post-Ayler tradition, his own contributions remain uniquely his. But Shipp argues, with some validity, that Ware’s extraordinarily disciplined music is not nearly as tied to the ’60s avant-garde as is commonly perceived (“He’s not a free jazz player in the way people think of free jazz at all.”), and he perceives himself as having put some of his own creative impulses aside in the service of Ware’s goals. “I have a lot of interests, so I can be different things at different times yet maintain the integrity of my personality,” he asserts. “And whenever I played with David I was dedicated to being the best player within his vision that I could be. ’Cause I really sincerely respect his vision, and I’m gonna be the best David Ware sideman, whatever that entails.”
The one thing Shipp and Ware have in common is a rigorous sense of structure. No matter how long one of the saxophonist’s solos may be, he’s never blowing just to blow, never vamping to buy time. Every note, every phrase, is a brick in a solid wall. Shipp achieves similar results with more obvious restraint, particularly in recent years. Early albums like Circular Temple and the live, two-track Prism were voluble eruptions, cascading notes and slammed chords filling every instant and all available space in the room – it was easy to understand why critics leapt to Cecil Taylor comparisons, even if a minute’s listening proved their inaccuracy. But in the last decade, Shipp’s playing has grown heavier and more beset with meaning, the notes falling from his fingers like stones or drops of rapidly cooling molten lead; they seem to thud and clang as they land. And there are fewer of them. There are some pieces on 4D in the five- to eight-minute range, but there are others that are only one or two minutes long.
“That’s what I do during live performance, is I have a thought, I finish it, and I go on to the next thought,” Shipp explains. “So as far as the sequencing on the CD, if a thought is complete, why extend it? I’m not even saying it’s complete and that it’s perfect, but if you have a thought and you’ve said what you want to do with it, get to the next fuckin’ thought.”
He cites Austrian composer Anton Webern as an influence, one he shares with saxophonist Daniel Carter, who played on Nu Bop and Nu Bop Live, and whose fully improvisational quartet Other Dimensions in Music Shipp joined for a gig documented on the AUM Fidelity CD Time is of the Essence; the Essence is Beyond Time. Some of Webern’s compositions were only a minute or two long, an idea that clearly holds some appeal for Shipp.
“That’s what Webern was about, the power of an idea is the power. CD people get pissed off if it’s less than 40 minutes, which LPs used to be, but any musician’s real ideas could probably be condensed into less than two minutes, and everything else is self-indulgence. And I’d say that about myself, too. I say that about everybody. I say that about John Coltrane, definitely about Keith Jarrett. The pith and strength of the actual idea is very little, and everything else is extrapolation off of that. And Webern’s about, why deal with that? Just get to the essence of the idea. If you have a CD that’s two minutes, people are not going to want to spend the money to buy it, but my goal in life is to be able to say everything I could in one note. If I could do that, I would. I might not be able to get paid for it, but if I could find a way to put the essence of every musical impulse I had in one or two notes – and you could feel it – that would be the goal in my life.”
Getting paid is a major concern of Shipp’s, as it must be for anyone trying to make his or her art into a life. Some years ago, he was known for making the rounds of record stores on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, checking to see which of his titles had sold. I ran into him at Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place one afternoon, and had to quickly put down one of his CDs before he could see that I’d grabbed it from the used bin rather than the new shelf. These days, many of the stores in that area have closed or moved – Tower Records is gone, as is Kim’s, and Downtown Music Gallery has moved even further downtown, into Chinatown.
“Equilibrium did extremely well for a jazz CD, like more than 5000 [copies sold] in America alone, and worldwide I did over 10,000,” says Shipp. “But that was back in 2003, which is a completely different universe than now. I break over 1000 on any CD, but it’s definitely a much different climate now than it was back then.”
Just as Shipp has made deliberate choices about how he presents himself in interviews, he’s also decided against some 21st Century promotional strategies. He has no blog, no Twitter account, no MySpace page or official Facebook page. His website is up to date, though he doesn’t have a webstore. He believes his somewhat traditionalist partnership with Thirsty Ear, tied as it is to traditional CD distribution models, is the way to go. “It’s about positioning yourself, and the weight of what Thirsty Ear and I can do together is more important than getting a few hundred or a thousand more sales and pocketing the money.” So it’s no wonder that Shipp’s talk of moving away from recording as a source of income has grown even louder and more vehement in recent years. Live performance is increasingly the only path to any kind of financial security these days.
Even that has its problems, though. “First of all,” says Shipp, “with jazz you’re dealing with people who aren’t exactly in their twenties, so just getting in a van and playing all these places and sleeping on somebody’s living room floor and all that is physically impossible, ’cause you’re older and you know, you have the feelings that older people have. B, in my case, I’m a pianist, so I have to deal with having physical pianos that are decent instruments in venues. C, the model that still exists for jazz musicians is playing festivals in Europe, where you can actually make a decent amount of money per gig. Not great, but respectable, so if you do enough of it and other things, you can make the type of living that a beginning yuppie might make. But the model for jazz musicians to just jump in a van doesn’t exist. I mean, Medeski, Martin & Wood did it, but they were in their twenties and they were white collegiate kids, so in a sense they could be a punk band or something doing it.”
“There are levels to this,” he continues. “There’s the level [bassist] William [Parker] and I are at, where we can make a living at it and we do all right, but we don’t have quite the weight in promoters’ eyes as Dave Holland or Charlie Haden, and they’re not on the level of Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett. There’s a plantation system, and there’s levels of the plantation you’re on. So we’re at the bottom of the top. In other words, we can make a living, we can count on going to Europe a certain amount of times per year, and we do all right, but then we come back here and this is where I live, in a one-room apartment.
I’m curious to learn exactly what a gig at a jazz club plays, so I just ask. “I try not to do club dates in Europe, I try to do mostly festivals, and they’re respectable,” says Shipp. “Club dates in Manhattan? Everyone’s different. The Blue Note doesn’t pay that much. When I play there, I play two sets a night, and it’s a thousand dollars guaranteed and if I bring a certain amount of people in there’s a bonus. So if I pack the place for both sets, I could actually come away with a decent amount of money for the night. And a festival in Europe would be – I wouldn’t do a festival for less than a grand. Plus they fly you over, they put you up, and it’s twelve hundred and up. I’ve had as much as three, four thousand for one gig and as little as eight hundred.
“I scream at my booking agent all the time, ‘Well, I won’t do gigs for less than this,’ and he’s always crying, ‘This promoter’s crying, he’s out of money,’ blah blah blah, ‘Herbie Hancock might be playing the festival and he’s getting 50,000, so that leaves the budget…’ It’s all different, every situation’s different.”
One of the factors that pushed Shipp into performing and recording as frequently as he does was the relative lack of work with the David S. Ware Quartet. Ware’s health kept him from touring as frequently as he might have done, and the rapturous reviews the group received from jazz critics – and some rock writers – weren’t translating into bookings. “I remember once there was a gig when Susie Ibarra was in the band,” he recalls, “and we met up at the airport, and Susie and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen each other for four months. We haven’t had a gig with David for four months?’”
Beyond the quotidian problems of trying to pay the rent by playing music, though, the raw joy of playing and the creative drive remain. Ranking artists on a sliding scale of purity, based on the commercial palatability of their music or lack thereof, is of course absurd. But the idea that musicians who make fewer concessions to conventional melody than their peers are in touch with something higher is a powerfully attractive one, flattering to the listener and the player he admires.
Shipp’s music has grown more traditionally beautiful over the years. The rampaging intensity of early ’90s discs like Prism and Circular Temple has been succeeded by several discrete periods of exploration. First, there were a string of avant-chamber albums, duos, trios and quartets, many featuring violinist Mat Maneri and few featuring drums; then, the electronically tinged releases on Thirsty Ear; and now, a full-strength return to acoustic playing, both solo and with a (recently disbanded) trio featuring bassist Joe Morris and drummer Whit Dickey.
In some ways, he seems to believe that more structured music has more lasting artistic value. “It’s easy for a free jazz player,” he says. “If you’re going to free jazz gigs and you’re in the audience and you see somebody start really freaking out on an instrument and the audience really applauds the more energetic and heavy it gets, it’s easy to get into the mindset where you want to create a lot of sound and do dense stuff, but at the end of the day what carries records is music. You have to have music people want to hear and listen back to, whether it’s a conceptual idea or a melodic thing that carries the music forward. And I think in my case it’s a certain way of connecting melodies. I’m always trying to make my phrasing carry meaning. Like if you listen to Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, every phrase that comes next seems to be the phrase that should come next. Potentially, any number of phrases could have followed, but the one that does follow [works] within the puzzle.”
I have no reason to believe there’s any raw commercial calculation behind Shipp’s musical shifts. For all his courting of the jazz press, he’s utterly clear-eyed about the genre’s role and prospects in 21st Century America.
“I would say, to me, jazz absolutely has no part of American culture right now,” he says. “I think the idea of jazz has a big part, and I think there are a lot of things that are jazzy, but I think we’re really divorced from the idea of people sitting down and listening to instrumental music. Obviously a jazz musician couldn’t work in America if there wasn’t an audience. I’m not saying that there’s not people. But as far as the broad culture – obviously in the ’60s there was a place for it in the culture. In the ’70s it becomes purely an art music that is supported by funding, even though there’s a modicum of jazz radio and even some jazz hits, if you go to, like, Chuck Mangione’s ‘Feels So Good,’ stuff like that. But once you get to the ’80s you have the beginning of Marsalis-ism. And then the image of jazz is a guy who could also record a Mozart album, and it’s completely corporate-controlled. So jazz has a part in the culture, in that if a person can from the get-go make a certain amount of money and exist on an uber-yuppie level, even though no one cares about their music or really listens to it, the image of them being successful and making money is allowed to seep into the general culture, so you can have an allusion to Wynton Marsalis on The Cosby Show in the ’80s. Which is fine. I want to make a lot of money. I want to be comfortable. And I want the accoutrements that go with mainstream success, but being able to maintain my own thing. But all that is to say that jazz’s place in the culture now is the idea of something jazzy is very much a part of the culture, but not actually dealing with the essence of the language of the music. That’s a lost cause in American culture, although there is an audience for it.”
Perhaps this is one reason that Shipp’s devotion to his art retains a deeply spiritual dimension. We’re not talking about religion here, though he’s quite willing to define his beliefs. “I’m basically a Christian mystic,” he says, “meaning that I’m not an orthodox Christian or a doctrinaire Christian, but I operate out of a whole Christian mystic tradition like people like William Blake, St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart.” How this manifests itself in his work is hard to quantify; sure, there’s the liturgical tone to his low notes that I talked about before, but I was raised Catholic myself, so maybe I’m primed to hear it that way. And yeah, he plays hymns from time to time, particularly on his solo discs, but he’s recorded Ellington tunes too, and no song has been as much of a leitmotif throughout his career as the standard “Autumn Leaves.”
Shipp’s recorded “Autumn Leaves” five times. Two versions bracketed David Ware’s Third Ear Recitation, another appeared on his own trio album The Multiplication Table, a fourth on the Ware quartet’s BalladWare, and now the tune reappears on 4D. “I just did it in the studio that day as a joke,” he says, though. “I was just playing whatever came into my head, and when we listened back to it it was like, ‘Wow, this kinda sounds like a combination of Bud Powell, a pop pianist like Roger Williams and an avant-garde pianist,’ so it got kept in the mix. I’ve been playing that tune since I was twelve years old. I never dreamed David was gonna play it, but he did, and at different times in my career, it works…that song has a lot of possibility in my language, even as I change the song to mutate with it.”
But getting back to the spiritual, the mystical – Matt Shipp may not wear glittering robes onstage or chant his way to the piano, but he’s every bit as cosmically inclined as Sun Ra. It shows up in his track titles (“Space Shipp,” “Gravitational Systems,” “Galaxy 105”), and when asked, he’ll happily hold forth about the universal energy field he believes channels through him when he’s at the keyboard.
“To me, creativity is completely that realm of manifesting energy,” he says. “I’m using energy, ’cause thought is gross energy. Behind thought is pure energy. Cause with thought you’re dealing with language, and language is dealing with a cultural alphabet, because our language has ingrained in it certain presumptions, certain attitudes, certain axioms. So once you get past the thought – you say you have a thought in your head. There’s some electrical impulse that activates the thought. The impulse is pure electricity. The actual content of the thought is language. So if you get past the cultural assumptions of the language, you’re dealing with pure electricity. And that to me is what any act is trying to get past the cultural assumptions to the pure electricity of the universe. So once you get there you’re dealing with pure creativity. Basically all we all do is shuffle preexisting things into a new puzzle. But there is the possibility of getting to that pure pool of electricity and doing a little more than recombining the constituent elements, and opening it up to where you get to pure existence. But then, of course, when you relay it back to the listener, it’s going to be in that cultural alphabet that you had. But to me, a great artist shows more possibilities, because they get closer to being able to delve into that pure pool of electricity. Now if you were able to really delve into that pure pool of electricity, you would transcend being a human being and become an angel, and therefore disappear. But you get what I’m saying.”
[This article by Phil Freeman is included in Burning Ambulance #1, available now.]