Peter Zummo has been composing work since 1967, honing his craft and methodology for solo trombone, and amassing an impressive body of work within the orbit of academia, art and pop. After finishing a masters degree in Connecticut, he arrived in New York at the behest of his wife, who was a dancer and choreographer. This opened up a non-traditional, unfettered path Zummo had been made previously aware of by the generation of Fluxus, John Cage and other loosely associated pioneers and collectives around at the time. He eventually found himself penning articles for a weekly news column, covering 'Concepts in Performance'. Through these means he began to come across the people he would eventually work with. This would lead to perhaps his most familiar and acclaimed collaborations with Arthur Russell.
Any summation of his career seems destined to fall short considering the wide gamut of his activities, ideas and influences so I'll not burden you with an essay. Suffice to say, his performances, compositions and collaborations have added vitality and substance to both the legacy of the NY downtown scene of the 70s and 80s, as well as the contemporary experimental scene.
In this interview he speaks thoughtfully and artfully, of the techniques, styles and interactions underpinning Lateral Pass, the latest reissued output of his work with Arthur Russell, due for release on Record Store Day. We also touch on the New York scene, his latest projects, how modern appreciation of Russell's work needs to be readjusted and much more.
Hi Peter, thanks for doing this podcast for us. What was the premise behind the ‘vinyl challenge’? Any particular themes, atmospheres or focus you had in mind whilst putting it together?
Since the release is about vinyl, and after I had spent a lot of time working on the podcast, I thought lightheartedly about it as the "Vinyl Challenge." I wanted to do all vinyl, and was going for a warm sound. I defeated the high-pass filters on the phono preamp and the mixer, and used some light but high-quality compression and limiting (like radio). I used a nice ribbon mic and tried to get a good sound. I found myself dwelling on blues/funk/r&b and chose tracks that were not only musically or topically interesting to me but also sounded really good to me. I have a lot of comedy albums and wanted to work that in.
Where was it recorded?
At my home on Staten Island, which is a tall Victorian house, and my studio (better to call it a music room) is on the top floor. It tends to be messy, but I can plug things in, so I spent a Sunday assembling my version of a broadcast room.
Did you pay any mind to sequence? It’s quite a fluid listen in terms of mood…
I paid a lot of mind to sequence. Ben Freeney had suggested that it would be cool to do it in one pass, so I set it up with a portable digital recorder that had a pause control, but no convenient way to back up and redo. So, if I made a mistake, I had to start over. I could talk before or after playing a record, but couldn’t change the record without pausing. I did three versions and threw out the first two, so I had opportunity to revise my sequence, as well as modify the selections.
Are there any favourites in there you’re particularly enjoying at the moment?
I liked the Paul Revere bit, being about the British and America, followed by Kitty Wells pining about her man off to war, had some humour to it. I liked the Stevie Wonder mention of the computer being down resonating with Rahsaan Roland Kirk doing the rant about electricity and the woman making love to a computer, and that was a conscious selection.
The complimentary asides are pretty enjoyable, gives it more of a radio feel. Do you have much of an appreciation for radio? Do you have any favourite selectors or DJs yourself?
I think the idea of this interview, or my podcast, is interesting because I think I understand why people who might want to, or enjoy, listening to my original music would also be interested in my selected tracks. When I can relax, I select at home, and I prefer vinyl. So there’s an aspect of getting personal, or coming into my house, about it.
I have a substantial appreciation for radio. My father, Peter Zummo, was a radio personality in Pittsburg, during the early days of commercial radio. He played piano to accompany live acts on the air. It was called the Pete Ray show. I’m looking forward to having the time to revive that show, in whatever medium is current, and this podcast was a first attempt. I did a radio show at college in the later 1960s, never got my third class license, but just pulled jazz records out the the shelves and read from the covers. I guess I got started back in Cleveland when I was a teenager. My parents had some old tube AM radios, which I still have, so I listened to pop in the dining room while they watched television in the living room. Then I persuaded them to drive me to Sears so I could buy a $20 Silvertone FM radio, which drifted like crazy, and I could get jazz. So I was listening to pop and jazz, but it was a separate thing from my ongoing training in classical music.
How do you usually come across new music? Do you have any favourite spots to buy records, in New York, Ohio or elsewhere?
The radio is the best medium for finding music I haven’t heard before. I’m partial to terrestrial broadcast, but the internet options are also useful. I’ve become addicted to used record stores, and now I just buy vinyl, although if I want to hear something specific (that I might have heard recently on the radio), I’ll look for it on CD. If I see records for sale, I look for something to buy. Sometimes I’m playing a show and the venue has some for sale; tag sales (yard sales, garage sales, etc.) can be great. I have a property in the woods in Massachusetts and there’s a cool bunch of stores up there called Turn It Up. I’m going to Ohio tomorrow, so now that you mention it, I’ll look for some.
What were the first and last records you bought?
The first might have been reel-to-reel tapes, Brahms Symphony #1 and some big band music, maybe some Gershwin. Recently I’ve grabbed some Joe Jackson with my cousin Vinnie playing guitar. I look at who the musicians are, and buy if I want to hear someone. I always check out the blues section.
The downtown scene of New York in the 70s and 80s is quite a fabled heyday of open, pioneering, interdisciplinary art. What led you there?
I was finishing a masters degree in Connecticut and my wife, Stephanie, said we were going to New York because she was a dancer and choreographer, and the experimental scene was in New York, so I thought I’d be a session musician. Then I met composers, and because we fell into a job writing a column for the Soho Weekly News called Concepts in Performance (with Wendy Perron), for which our editor Robb Baker gave us assignments, I met people in new music and ended up working with them. What was happening in the arts at that time followed logically from what I had been exposed to at college (Wesleyan).
Can you tell us about your first impressions when you arrived, how they changed (if they did) and your thoughts in hindsight?
At that time New York City just seemed to be somewhere behind the edge of civilization. I suppose that if I had grown up here it would have been normal, but it was a difficult society to understand. Also, maybe because of the 60s and general turmoil in society, following a traditional path wasn’t obvious, and we were rather creative. I became more traditional later and pursued a career in so-called higher education, which was in any case related to my artistic endeavors.
How aware and involved were you in scenes which were later labelled punk, no wave, and hip hop…?
I thought I was doing serious music, so while I was repeatedly being invited to play in these genres, I didn’t care, although I seemed to be good at it. I didn’t embrace hip hop at first, although Arthur came back from those studios and said to me, this is going to be the music of the future. Now I’m listening to hip hop, more for the production than the rhyme. I guess I was aware of punk – we went to Patti Smith’s breakout show, but I had already heard Miles Davis live twice, as well as Roland Kirk and Sun Ra…
What are your thoughts about contemporary New York’s climate for artists in comparison with the downtown scene of the 70s and 80s?
There are numerically so many more young people here now, the options for them have to be different. We were fortunate to be able to be recognized back then, and we were possibly more innocent, so the artistry might have had the upper hand over the marketing. I still feel that the young arrivals rejuvenate New York, so I am all for them.
When and how did you first meet Trisha Brown and what attracted you to scoring her work?
I first saw Trisha in a Grand Union performance in the early 70s. I probably met her casually after 1975. In the early 80s, Stephanie and Wendy got an invitation to do a piece at Art on the Beach, which was Creative Time making real estate available to artists. In this case, it was 11 acres of landfill on the river west of what is now the World Trade Center. It’s now called Battery Park City. There was a rise in the landfill, so I decided to put the band and the audience on top of the rise, with the dancers below on the vast acreage. The band included Arthur, Bill Ruyle, and Marc Ribot. Marc had just gotten some effects device that he wanted to use. I found some warped plywood construction panels and constructed a little amphitheater with them. Trisha called me afterwards and said that the music so perfectly complemented the dance that she would like me to work with her.
Can you tell us about how Lateral Pass came together? What was the nature of the relationship between Trisha Brown’s choreography and the four movements of Lateral Pass? Did the dance or the music hold any kind of supremacy in terms of taking the lead…?
My theory of music for dance is that the music has to leave room for the dance. The points of intersection are rhythm and gesture. I tried to be transparent, but got away with denser music in Songs VI and IV. I would hope that the dance always held the supremacy, otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing my job. But, the music has to stand on its own, or it would be lame.
What did you like about the playing of Bill Ruyle, Mustafa Ahmed, Guy Klucevsek and Arthur Russell? How did you see your own approach complimenting theirs?
We all found each other through various interactions. The interesting trend was to find friends, musical friends, who related to each other on many levels. This took priority over looking for a specific instrument, so maybe this was a radical departure from the idea of the composer having an idea that needed to be realized with the sounds the composer was hearing internally. It was more about putting social units together. I met Bill through LaMama, which came about from my work with the Soho Weekly News. I knew Guy from the “serious” new music scene. Arthur had found Mustafa in a studio somewhere. My own approach was to generate a list of found items, or fragments, and coach the musicians to perform real-time excursions through them.
What were the technical aspects behind the instrumentation, there seems to be structured cycles but also improvisation within them…? I’ve heard you were interested in the relation between serial music and bebop, at least in relation to Sci Fi…can you tell any novices (including yours truly) about those two styles and your intention in bringing them together, and any other styles or theories which informed the other movements of Lateral Pass? It reminded me of Javanese Gamelan at certain points…
I was never in a position to provide a living for any musician, so I made my music independent of specific instruments or persons (and I think this had been going on in blues, rock or jazz music for some time). I used the phrase “composition of ensemble” rather than “composition for ensemble.” Anytime I think that the improvisation was limited I can listen and realize that there was more improvisation going on than I thought. The improvisation can also take the form of choosing when to play, or repeat, a fragment, as opposed to inventing melody on the spot.
Sci-Fi doesn’t have much to do with bebop, but I had spent some time with the idea of improvising serial music back at graduate school. I felt a chromatic relationship between the two, also having to do somehow with discontinuity. So I started to try to improvise serial music. I thought that if I always played the note least recently played, in the register least recently used…and so on with dynamics, articulation, timbre, etc., and then try to increase the speed, then I would be improvising in the serial style. I became somewhat proficient at it. I thought it should result in something quite discontinuous, but when I listened to the tapes, it sounded like music. I realized that there is not really discontinuity within one body or organism. I described all of this to Arthur and we worked at it a bit. When I went into the studio for some of his disco things, I asked, what should I play, and he said, just play your chromatic thing.
I can maybe see the gamelan connection you hear. I did study a bit of Javanese music, was pretty good at counting the gong parts, played trumpet and trombone with gamelan, wrote two gamelan pieces for Gamelan Son of Lion, and travelled to Java and Bali in 1980.
Obviously you’re well known for your collaborations with Arthur Russell, what was the best thing about working with him?
He was a very good musician, had innovative ideas and an advanced method of getting the best out of a diverse array of personalities and skill sets, all of this while putting his music together. He was also funny.
You’ve mentioned in a previous interview the necessity of younger audiences who’ve recently come to appreciate Arthur Russell’s work that some lack ‘sufficient information about the aesthetic basis of it especially in regards to performance practice’. What are the significant ideas in this area which you would most like to see imparted and realised?
I may have been referring more specifically to minimalism. I suspect that while there are scores and recordings of this broadly defined genre, there seems to be a lack of understanding of where it was coming from. This music was more meditative than celebratory, there was no less attention focused (it was just focused in different and often restricted areas), and it was about the collective, not the individual.
As regards Arthur’s work, he stripped funk and disco down to their essentials, kept it dry, and the rough edges were part of it. There is a tendency today to smooth over the roughness, and to mix wet and full. Listen to his vocals and think about how much he was into Indian music. If Arthur were around today, he’d be doing something different, and I assume he’d like for us to being doing something different.
The Dinosaur track, ‘Kiss Me Again’, is one of my (and I’m sure many others) favourites from your collaborations with Arthur Russell, there’s a lot of talent on that record (David Byrne, Henry Flynt, Peter Gordon, and of course yourself) can you tell us about how the track came together…the story behind it perhaps? I'm curious as to how all that talent came together!
I don’t remember anything about recording this track. I was probably in the studio with just Arthur and Mark, and he asked me to play on a track.
You’ve also worked with John Lurie, Peter Gordon, and countless others, what do you think is important in terms of getting into the spirit of collaboration?
When I got to New York I had to quickly learn that not everybody had the same background as I did (and mine was by no means normal). I had to learn to relate to, and make music with, musicians with no formal training, or other training than mine. I’m a musician, and my natural approach is to do my job, make other people sound good, and deliver when it counts. At the same time, being in the brass section, I’m always looking for how to do that while prodding or stimulating the whole.
What artists are you currently excited about?
I played with the Go: Organic Orchestra last night (Adam Rudolph) and Charles Burnham took a fantastic violin solo. I also liked what the two contrabasses behind me were playing.
More recently, you’ve begun working with Billy Ficca (Television) and Ernie Brooks (The Modern Lovers) Can you tell us about this project and anything else you’re currently working on?
Ernie and I are fronting a band, nominally called Bear 54 (Where are you?) and we get Billy any time we can. The last gig we did, at the Queens Museum, also had Bill Ruyle on hammer dulcimer and Walter Baker on guitar. We do my instrumentals (plus spoken word, a new direction), some Arthur songs and instrumentals, and songs by Ernie. It’s a chance for me to work out my modular compositions (comparable to the songs in Lateral Pass) in a band setting. Think of a band as a social unit – when it becomes an organism then something is happening. I’m working on recordings with more electronics; a projected release called Zummo with a Y; Bear 54 releases; and some art-related presentations in New York for the fall.
Listen to his Influences Tapes below…
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