From Punk and Improv to “Downtown Composer”
Frank J. Oteri: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
Annie Gosfield: The first thing I always say is I’m a composer, and then people ask, “What do you play?” It’s kind of interesting because I am a composer-performer, and the two things work together. I compose music for my own ensemble, and I compose music for other people. And the range of music that’s created is very wide in terms of instrumentation and approach. But in terms of the actual music and sound, there is a unity to it. I’m so influenced by non-musical sounds, as well as many different types of music, but they all get absorbed into my grey matter somehow.
FJO: So how do you feel about the term “classical music”?
AG: “Classical music” is useful if you’re talking with people who aren’t too familiar with the subtleties of “new music.” Let’s say I’m on an airplane and people say “What is it? Is it classical music?” You could say it’s performed by classical musicians. I had a recent experience where somebody who worked at a bank asked me what I did, and I said I was a composer. And he said, “Classical music, like Billy Joel?” So it’s all loaded.
FJO: What do you think of the term “Downtown music”?
AG: For me the term is fine. I live downtown. Being downtown is very important to me. My grandparents were immigrants who came through downtown New York by way of Ellis Island, so I also feel I have this ancestral connection. In a lot of ways, I think I typify a Downtown composer. I don’t like the idea of stereotyping myself, but I exist as a composer/performer and as a composer I haven’t come out of one strict background: I’ve studied composition, but a lot of what has influenced my music is free improvisation and being in bands. And I think this is all part of being a Downtowner.
FJO: Do you think there’s still an Uptown/Downtown divide in new music?
AG: It’s getting very blurred. I think when people started using the terms it made sense. At that point, I think a lot of people were loath to call the Downtowners “composers” to begin with. I think it was a way of categorizing them so that they could be composers; they were “Downtown composers.” Downtown has become this hip, trendy thing over years now, and it’s almost been co-opted by the rest of the world. You read about people being “Downtown” who are from other cities. I also don’t necessarily think that an area of a few blocks in New York has the patent on a certain kind of music. There’s a reason why that sort of music came from here, but there are people doing interesting things all over the world.
FJO: You’re not even originally from New York City.
AG: Most Downtowners probably aren’t; there are a few. I’m originally from Philadelphia, and not even downtown Philadelphia!
FJO: One of the meanings those words have beyond the geographical associations with streets in New York City is that Uptown implied a connection with some sort of academic institution. Now, you’ve been teaching at Mills, which for lack of a better term is a Downtown place to teach.
AG: It certainly is a more progressive place to teach. And it is true that some of these Downtown ideas have been absorbed into academia, which is even strange for me to absorb. There’s no longer this very strong division between Downtown and academia.
When I was studying classical music in school, when I was done with it I wanted to get as far from it as I could. There was not the same curriculum there is now; it was very conservative. But it was very good for learning specific skills. You had to be very disciplined. I learned how to work hard, and how to produce work.
FJO: So what do you do at Mills to guarantee that your students won’t want to run away from composition?
AG: The really important things you can teach people are how to work and how to produce music and how to finish a piece. Both students and composers can find every neurotic excuse not to finish, but you can always go back and revise. And you really need to develop skills of concentration so you can stay at it for a while. Again, it’s a question of helping people find their own voices. People are usually on the right track with finding it themselves. I really enjoy teaching there. At the same time, when I’m done, I enjoy not teaching.
FJO: Teaching composition at least seems more related to composing music than what you used to do, make hats, which seems an odd day job for a composer.
AG: Well, I have a large head, and I liked hats. As an adult I went to Manual Arts High School in South Central L.A. to take a millinery class. Manual Arts High School is also called Jefferson High and actually has this very illustrious history of jazz musicians; Dexter Gordon, Horace Tapscott, and lot of other musicians went there. I started making hats in L.A., but I got much more into it here in New York. I had my own little one-woman sweat shop, reliving the immigrant life style, and I made fine hats for Barney’s for quite a few seasons.
Hats were very fashionable in the early ’90s when I first moved here, and somehow it always worked out. If I had to go on tour, I wouldn’t have any hat orders to worry about. Then when I came home, I could produce a season’s worth of hats, and I didn’t have any commissions. The two things—music and hats—just sort of dovetailed. Then when hats started going out of style, I had enough commissions and musical work to sustain myself, so it just filtered off.
Hats took a lot of time to make; they were very labor intensive. But I think a lot of those skills that I developed are expressed now in putting scores and parts together. A lot of other composers think it’s a heinous task, but for me it’s kind of fun because it’s the same idea of getting everything lined up just perfectly. It’s kind of archaic, but the score and parts are really the final product that’s going out to a musician. This is the language that they see it in. So it’s important to me to make it as beautiful and as legible as possible.
FJO: You mentioned that you played in bands while you were studying composition; what kind of bands were they?
AG: My first gig was on April 1, 1980, and I lived in Los Angeles at the time. My first band was called Planet Z. I was singing and playing keyboards. I still have these cute little pink tickets for one dollar off the three-dollar admission. I was playing a lot at The Hong Kong Café, which was a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown in L.A. Roger Kleier and I also started a band at this time which was called The Apes of God, which was kind of an amorphous free improv group. It was a really exciting time because the clubs were just exploding. The punk scene was huge. There were also all these satellite scenes because the commercial world was always so strong in L.A. So in some ways you could get away with anything that was under the radar.
FJO: So you and Roger Kleier, who is also your life partner, go all the way back to 1980!
AG: Yeah. It’s kind of like being brother and sister.
FJO: At this point now, with each of you writing your own music, how do you balance your creative and personal lives?
AG: I think there are real plusses and minuses to living with another composer. It’s very nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and I think we’re important influences on each other’s work. It’s nice for me when I write a guitar part to have Roger play it for me, and it’s nice to be able to play for Roger. We’ve also been together for so long that we tend to have developed certain skills and completely ignored other ones; so we have each other to take care of for certain things. And it’s nice to have somebody to go on the road with whom you know. One of the funny things that happens is that because we have a small living space when we’re both working on something, it winds up being in the same key. It’s very strange. In New York, I would say the hardest thing is that we have limited work space, so sometimes one of us just has to go out and let the other one work.
FJO: Getting back to those early bands you and Roger formed in L.A., when I think of that time, I’m reminded of the group X, which sort of typified that scene.
AG: We were closer in spirit to groups like the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS), a little bit less influenced by punk, and we did a lot of instrumentals. We had our own organization called the LAIC (Los Angeles Improvisers’ Collective), and we occasionally brought in musicians from New York. We would play in all kinds of places—dives, galleries, Chinese restaurants, health food restaurants. We used to play in a place where the guy who introduced the bands was a born-again Christian and he refused to say the name The Apes of God. We would also play in punk clubs and sometimes people would throw things at us. There was a great place in L.A. called The Anti-Club that many, many bands have come through, and the owner used to occasionally pull the plug on us. It was kind of like music as contact sport. But I have to say it was really fun.
There may have been moments when I wondered why I was doing this, but there was no greater preparation for when things got a little tough later in life. Even today, if a performance isn’t going well, I’ll think, “Hell, nobody’s throwing beer at me. I can get through this; I’ve gotten through worse before.” It was not only important for me musically; it really helped me develop a thick skin. And you deal with rejection. And you learn that it’s more important to develop your own music than to be part of a popularity contest. At these punk clubs, a lot of the people performing were very young. So you’d see these jock bands from high schools, and they’d bring in all their friends and tend to get booked again because they sold a lot of tickets. At the tender age of 19 or 20, I realized that’s not what it’s about. I’m here to make music. I’m not carrying some sixty-pound keyboard up three flights of stairs to win a popularity contest. Being in Los Angeles also allowed me to develop artistic ideas a little out of the public eye that we would have experienced in New York. So I think having those experiences really allowed me to develop, to really feel strong about expressing exactly what it was that I did, and to hell with what other people thought about it.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you talk about singing because I’ve never heard vocal music from you.
AG: I sang in a band only because somebody had to fulfill that function and it was me. I was very happy to stop singing. I love singing at home, but I’m just not a singer. I think there’s also something about the gender thing. If you’re female, many people expect you to be a singer. And it really started to bother me. If I had a gig where I was singing, people always asked me what I was going to wear; but if I had a gig where I was just playing, people would ask me what I was going to play.
But right now there’s a big project coming up that’s an opera about the Danish Resistance during World War II, and we’re in the process of figuring out how the text is going to be used. I don’t know if this will be an opera that is traditionally sung, since the materials aren’t necessarily going to lend themselves to that. The Danish Resistance had really advanced radio technology, and I love the idea of bringing in radio sounds and these mysterious, coded, poetic messages that the Resistance used to transmit information. With my great interest in non-musical and noisy sounds, I imagine we’ll use a lot of shortwave sounds and odd radio transmissions. An important part of this project is also going to be the visuals and staging. I’m working with Jacob F. Schokking, a great director in Copenhagen, and a chamber group called the Esbjerg Ensemble. So now I’m preparing for that project. I have a big shortwave radio in a box that I’ve been afraid to unearth and start recording, and I’m reading up a lot on codes and encryption and seeing how this could apply to musical process as well.
FJO: What initially got you so interested in all these extra-musical noises?
AG: It started when I was a little kid. I was one of those kids who liked to watch what we called the ant race from outer space—the static on the TV—or to listen to the radio between stations. I have this really vivid memory of swimming really deep when I was a kid to go down to hear the way the motor for the filter in the swimming pool reverberated. I always had a fairly open mind for listening, so it wasn’t just listening to music; it was listening to these non-musical sounds. When I was about twelve, someone abandoned this reel-to-reel tape recorder and tape in my parents’ house, and I got interested in that. The transport was broken, so you couldn’t hit the play button. I got curious about what was on the tape, and I figured out how to take two pencils to spin the reel forwards and backwards and slow and fast, kind of the basics of musique concrète. The tape recorder had come from this hippie farm commune in Vermont, and someone had made a practical joke. The program that was actually on the tape was a recording of this couple having sex. So as an eleven- or twelve-year-old girl, it was a prurient idea of getting to these sounds; there was some payoff.
FJO: So, once you were out there making music, when did the shift happen from playing in bands to writing—for lack of a better term—”contemporary classical” compositions?
AG: One piece that would really demonstrate going from having a band to the world of notated music is The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory. I had moved to New York in 1992, and I put together a band here, again, me and Roger Kleier, and Christine Bard on drums. I wrote this piece for [us to play on] one of John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture festivals down at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street in 1994. It was inspired by my grandmother and by the fact that I had moved to the Lower East Side, and my grandmother had moved to the Lower East Side as an immigrant thirteen or fourteen-year-old who worked in factories. Out front on 12th street, you can still see cobblestones that have now worn down, and every time I walk the street I think about her. This neighborhood was called the Jewish Rialto because there were all these Yiddish theatres here. Café Royale was right across the street, which was this theatre hangout that I know my grandfather used to go to. So the connection is still very strong even though she’d been dead for years before I wrote this piece. I was thinking about the sounds that she would have heard. This was the first of my industrial-influenced pieces.
We performed it with our group a few times, and I sent a tape of it to Bang on a Can. And I got a call from them, and they said they’d like to perform it. And I said I’d rather do it with my own group. And they said, “We would like for the Bang on a Can All Stars to perform it.” And I thought, “This is for my band; is somebody [else] going to be able to interpret it in the same way?” But it seemed pretty obvious that they weren’t going to go along with the idea of my band playing it. And then I think Michael Gordon said, “We could record it and play it on tour.” Having moved here from L.A., I tended to be a little bit suspicious when people made me promises. But I thought it was definitely worth a shot. So I had to go through the task of notating the whole piece, at which point they played it, they recorded it, and they played it on tour. So although I really had had no interest in expressing my music through notation again as I had learned in college, it wound up being incredibly gratifying in the long run. It was almost as if, once I got past that first stumbling block, I was ready to jump right back in.
(To continue reading the conversation, click here.)