Cart 0

Randy Peterson Interview : Microtonal Rhythm

Ruweh Records (R) : What was your experience like to play with Joe and Mat Maneri?

Randy Peterson (P) : I think the idea we had at first would go back to 1988 or 1989, when the music really started happening to a greater degree. And then with each year, into the mid 90s, there’s a lot of things and changes that happened. But the idea that we came up on, the first time we played together, was that we wanted to play exactly what we wanted to play as musicians and then let the chips fall as they will. In other words, we first wanted to play in a way where we were playing for ourselves where there’s no audience members necessarily, and then we wanted to put that in front of the audience in Boston, you know. And then the idea was this; let’s just play exactly like what we want to play and then if people don’t like it they don’t, if they like it they like it. That’s what that was. For one thing, the use of microtones… in which, it wasn’t academic for them, for Mat and Joe. But as a drummer I’d never played with people who played with microtones, and when Joe and Mat used them they didn’t use them in a way that’s any different from when they used the traditional tonality of non-microtonal music. It was all just music.

And for Joe, it was the same thing with the language, with words. Obviously he spoke English and he could speak Italian but he would write his own language and speak his own language. I’m paralleling between the two; as music, not differentiating microtonal and non-microtonal music, and with language it’s not differentiating English language and his made-up language, which was written and there were many pages. He would keep erasing and what he was doing was finding the most interesting words, just the way they sounded. It was the same when he played music.



The quartet was going really strong in 91 and 92, drawing audiences in Boston. International record labels were taking interest in us. The music would sound really good and then Joe would do something like, (making growling sound) he is playing almost like an inappropriate sound or wrong sound or something and Mat would almost get mad but Joe would be like, “yeah man, I wanted to play a wrong note”. For example, he would be playing tenor saxophone and he would say something like “I’m comping on saxophone”, which nobody does. “That sounded weird.. what do you mean you are comping, are you soloing or are you in the background?” We would ask these questions and he says “I’m not exactly soloing nor being in the background” Everything is a continuum form, not only a pitch continuum, but stylistic proclivities. He was inspired by Lester Young very strongly and then he kind of passed bebop. He was an older guy you know, he was already writing music and four-part harmonies and Schoenberg and all that. He would play all these different ethnic musics, Armenian, Greek, Turkish, Irish, Jewish. At that time in New York to play wedding gigs, you would have to learn all these stuff, and his playing in those styles was unbelievable.

Joe would leave this space of slight duration or longer and just put a note in the spot, you call it a “love note” or something but you just put it in the right spot like language, like words. Then, as a drummer , there’s no patterns, plus it’s microtonal. So what happened was I started realizing the pitch continuum, there’s a parallel like a rhythmic continuum, and I’m not talking about rubato exactly or something like that. And there was a teeth to it. It was like playing out of time so to speak with some teeth to it, as opposed to the floating sort of thing. In other words, there is relationships between these rhythmic figurations that are very acute and very particular. It was funny because we were playing the music that nobody did yet, but it was obvious that there were lot of right and wrongs about it. No one told us that but you could tell that’s a mistake. Why?

There was something that Joe taught us about patience and milking something or… like being the long form, a piece of music that’s 20 minutes minimum, developing something that leaks and then reappears, evaporates and comes back in very concrete way and then disappears again, it’s like a mist or something but then it’s very solid.. But it’s all the same thing, as opposed to all these trend of time signatures, rhythmically speaking, like metric modulation. Going from what was the trend in the 1980s and then 90s to today, you know the time signature is always was one way of dealing with the modernity in a way. Musicians became very adapt. But what we were doing was... the music wasn’t really cued or anything. The orchestration was secondary. Everything of course was equally important, but with that quartet, we were definitely playing the four different tempos at once and they weren’t linked in like in an obvious way or metric way. It wasn’t like accentuating certain beats, it wasn’t metric modulations, it wasn’t written music, but we would really play these malleable tempos that was real but as soon as you started to detect time signature or tempo it would almost disappear, if you understand what I mean. When we played with three or four different instruments we were this singular kind of thing where this emphasis was more or less pronounced different times during the composition.

During the early and mid 90s, a lot of people became aware of Joe, and then he started meeting a lot of people like SunRa and Teo Macero. So many of these people started coming around and that was good because it was sort of legitimizing what he was doing.

We became known, which was something we didn’t think was necessarily gonna happen, but Joe was known in his small circles as being his characters. We’ve had people who would scream, and they didn’t do that at jazz clubs there, especially in Boston. But while we were playing they would scream and they start yelling, and they were passionate. And then Joe would go into this Greek slash free improvisational, soulful kind of… believe me, he was the best clarinetist you’ve ever heard in your life, I can’t even put it into words.. it had nothing to do with microtones, like he didn’t even had to play those, that was just something he loved. He came from that very old-school tradition, he was an older guy, so he would do something like going up to the table, he comes with his tenor through the audience and even at concerts and festivals sometimes, he would go to the audience and put his horn near their head or their ears and he would play, and in some cases they would start crying. People were very moved by him, even people that didn’t know him. He was a real character.

I was weighing every note that I played..not in a bad way like hesitation or anticipation, but it was almost as though, right before I struck the note or the beat, I got the quickest hair trigger ability to change it in the most comfortable way. And you wanted to have a very quick sort of sensibility when playing jazz where everything changes very quickly. But after I played that stuff and then went back to playing jazz, it seemed so easy to me, to play jazz, because it seemed like it slowed down to where I could understand it so much clearer. Playing Joe’s music honed your ability to play fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second in just like a switch.


R: So what you were saying is about approaching the beat and rhythm from the perspective of microtonality.

P: That’s right. It’s like beats cut up and divided. If you are a drummer, we see things on a grid or a pattern and we practice that way. Basically it’s two beats or three beats, and you can put five beats between the duration or seven beats between the duration. It’s basically two or three. So with the microtonality, it wasn’t just two or three, it was the space where you could play these…there are these interesting spaces. What do you call that? It’s almost like a wild nature, so what is it? Is everyone a musician? The answer is no. What are you supposed to play? What it calls on is your musicianship, because there’s no pattern around these things, but if a pattern occurs, that means that you brought that about and you mean it and you want that pattern. Whether you thought you wanted to play it or whether you had ever played it before, you must have wanted it, because you are in that element and that’s what you did.


In most music, if you speed up, there’s a sense of tightening, if you slow down, there’s sense of loosening. And those are very obvious and that’s not necessarily universally true, but, within that, aren’t there many many variations that you can do, and why do we have to think of rhythm as time signature? I myself, personally, when I started checking this stuff out, I thought to myself that I threw away this bag of tricks but now I’m learning to play in new way and I’m actually starting to incorporate things that I’ve done years earlier, except they are like transformed a little bit. It was an interesting and original creative music. It was hard for me to play it as a drummer, and there’s no problem with that, because it doesn’t matter, what matters is music. And later on it starts getting easier and more fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. It’s all secondary… the first thing is the music, the sound and the vibration that go into the ears of listeners into the nervous system and into the person.


R: Can you talk about the history of music in your life?

P: I grew up listening to everything on the radio and my father would play Hank Williams songs and he had a really good hi-end tube stereos and he ordered these speakers from Europe that was supposed to be the best speakers you could get. These are really nice sound system.

I was playing brush beats that were in time at 5 years old, but I really didn’t start playing until 11, 12, when I had a redwood drum set. That was like the best day of my life. I liked everything at first, and I started taking drum lessons with an instructor down the block. He put on some jazz, which was something I didn’t listen to as much. I was 14 or 15, and I started playing that stuff and he would look at me and say, how do you know how to play that? And I was like I don’t know, somehow I could hear it. I think I heard it from television commercials and soundtracks to movies and watching pop culture at that time. There were still this kind of swing probably through early 70s. If you listen to pop culture like Frank Sinatra, it kind of had this light swing to it and I could kind of hear it. And I thought to myself that jazz is probably the most challenging thing to play for a drummer and therefore I have to learn how to play jazz and I didn’t like it as much as some of the pop stuff, but then after few months of doing it I liked it as much. 

The idea of moving to Boston in my 20s was of studying with Alan Dawson or some drummers that I thought would be helpful, I was just trying to be practical to get some work. What I ended up doing was just playing little gigs right around the time I met Joe and Mat and I went into that different direction. I didn’t expect that although I do feel very happy about that.

There were certain drummers like Elvin Jones, who I went to see play a lot in Boston, and I thought to myself, “alright, I’ve got to build on that, that’s what I love.” So that was big for me, and Tony Williams of course. With Elvin, he played the triplet in a certain way… it was so pliable and so dynamic and it had a strong effect on me. And this almost touches the idea of microtonality in rhythm, because he was displacing that triplet in a very subtle way, and the triplet is the most round…. It is ineffable, it’s hard to talk about it, but it’s appealing to me. I love straight 8th notes which are a beautiful, focused thing that’s contained, and the triplet was something that’s overflowing… And that’s what Elvin had. He had this overflowing kind of thing. Anyway, I just had to play music. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t have the temperament to be practical about things and if I didn’t make enough money, I had to accept that.

But hanging out with Joe and those guys, he had the same mentality. In a way it was comforting to be around people like that, because they were serious people. This romantic kind of idea was really forming. It was this idea of giving everything to it and throwing it to a wind in a way. I still struggle with it. The style I developed through playing with Joe was very helpful in many ways when I played with other people, but I couldn’t play that exact same style because they weren’t playing what Joe was playing. So I had to modify it. And that was difficult, because I had to think about it again. Like, going back to Elvin, and the triplets are there… I love Eric Dolphy’s music. And it’s interesting because it’s like post-bop kind of thing. Studying Sonny Rollins is unbelievable. There’s this weird thing of genre and style… with Sonny Rollins you could say that That’s straight ahead jazz and it is, but that’s like 50s and 60s and I’d like to hear some of the stuff he was doing. It’s not a question of preferring some absolute avant garde as opposed to a way of working with him a genre or something. I don’t have a preference. To me Joe was all of those things. He was just a version of Lester Young with all these other stuff he is bringing in like microtones.

People think that I’m some sort of avant garde drummer, but I’m not. It just so happens that historically maybe it was a significant thing. I play with a lot of people, I try to challenge people when I play with them, which is tricky. When I moved to New York, people wouldn’t talk about music very much and people didn’t have too much time and it was hard to get everyone together… It was almost looked at like, playing the gig and the rehearsal but you still don’t talk about music. You are supposed to be able to just hear it, and you don’t need to talk about it. But I felt that the sound that was happening in New York was different from that of Chicago or Europe and it was almost like a boxing match to me. A lot of people were trying to play as loud as possible and lacking in dynamics in some ways and the stylistically it came out of late 50s through the 60s, and it was sort of based on that music, a version of that. But the stuff Joe was playing wasn’t that. Maybe you couldn’t exactly call it a classical music or you couldn’t exactly call it jazz.

There wasn’t that romantic idea like music, it was more of the thing like, “ok, this is what we have. We do this , and you do that, then you should meet so and so and that was a success..” Then you go home and wonder what just happened. Like, the expectations are very low. But like I said, we were very romantic and strong. We had a high expectations as we start to see what was happening. It seems like in New York, what people are looking at is, “so and so is famous, therefore that’s the way to go, there must be a reason they are famous, they are famous because they are good, ok if they are good, then I should play like that.” They seem to not ask the question of what they want to play. They seem to fall into this maelstrom or something. And they think that that’s where things should be, and they start getting benefits for it. And that’s kind of superficial. I don’t mean to be negative or judgmental toward New York musicians. My point is that what I really like to hear is what each individual, or musician really like to play, that’s all.

I think people are timid in general, we are timid creatures. So we either want to mock something or we want to just surrender, there’s no middle ground. Why don’t we have a middle ground? Within that middle ground, what is it that you like? Develop it, and show me.. Don’t be impressed by the things that I like. What do you really like? Some people might say, “I used to like this stupid pop song,” like it was a demon from the past or something. But everything is all fine, if you could hear something in the dumbest pop song, that means that you are excellent, it shows your musicianship. …

Mat and I, even the accents in music, we learn how to play them together, somehow we magically play them together. But it’s not a magic, it has to do with body motions and also parameter of 10 or 20 different things you are gonna do. And playing together for so many years, you can see physically what you are about to strike. Mat and I play these festivals and club dates where we are not even looking at each other, and we would end with staccato at precisely the same spot… It’s almost scary. And you might say it’s a cliché, or you’ve done that many times before, but no we never did that before. I don’t know what that is exactly, but there is this proclivities we have and understanding them. Sometimes people ask how we play together in this way, but I can’t really answer that question. It’s just playing together for a long time…


R: How do you relate that kind of things to music education?

P: That’s a problem, because there has to be a real interest in music on that level. Most people, they may not realize it, but they don’t have the interest on that level. What I believe in is to develop your ear to the point to achieve this ability almost in real time to hear every note that the person is playing, and once that happens, slight variations become manageable.

With the Joe Maneri quartet, we would play stuff like where different tempos going on simultaneously, and also something like it would just culminate into almost a silence or a beat or something. And we would immediately hear it. It goes from this really loud, or fast, different feeling to another immediately and it would fit. Joe would play Marler Symphony because that’s an example of these melodies that seem to keep going forever. It goes on forever, the space could last forever, the duration could be so long. It’s so interesting. It could be the same thing and it doesn’t need to change. We listen to a lot of these music through Joe, like Bach, Glenn Gould and we talk about it. 

Counterpoint… we have to do the same thing, but we are living, at that time, late 20th century in the modern time. So what do we want to play? You know, Bach didn’t have the influence of Charlie Parker and all those music, so what do you want to do, coming back to that again.  What is it that you like?...

Joe was very honest in many different ways. He was brutally honest sometimes. With music too of course. The other thing is that Joe would sometimes almost try to sabotage the music. He would say something like “the best time is when the music is really weak.” For example we would be playing for a half an hour and it was really good, but we would be running out of ideas or something. And then, Joe comes in and he says “when music doesn’t sound good, now you are gonna play something you like, you are gonna show me what you love.” Mat and I wouldn’t wanna show that weakness on stage, but Joe would.

There was this one time we were playing in Cambridge, MA, and the music was sounding really good. He just went to another world with his eyes closed. And they were saying last call, and saying that they were closing, and the light started blinking and people were leaving. Mat and I were looking at each other and thought to keep playing, because Joe kept going. And they finally showed up with this note that said ‘you have to get off the stage” but Joe still had his eyes closed and playing. So we had to start tagging his shirt to let him know.. 

Joe was like a figure to me like Miles Davis. Playing with Joe was something very unique.. but then I wish we would be allowed to play not so good, badly in a way in front of people. But the problem is who is to judge. I’m not judgmental if the music doesn’t sound so good, what I’m interested in is potential. Sometimes you get together with people and the music doesn’t sound so good, that can be the most potential. Other times you get together with people and the music sounds good, it’s never going to be better. People have this way of avoiding certain problems. I don’t mean to sound like a fake bravery or anything, but we wanted problems, we wanted to have musical problems, and if we couldn’t solve them, then we couldn’t. That’s all. I don’t see this too much in New York. It seems like people come with ideas already and you are supposed to have polished sound and everybody is happy.

I wanna play on something that is just really honest. It might be something that’s challenging to some people to listen to, it doesn’t mean the music is good or bad or anything but it’s about what you want to do. What is it that you love?

Some ways of playing music are ground breaking and they encompass a lot. There’s something that Walt Whitman says…. “If I contradict myself, I contradict myself. I’m big, I’m broad, I’m large.” Some music is like that. You don’t have to sound exactly like the person doing it. Like the thing I talked about Elvin’s triplets. Where he played them in certain way, or 12/8 time, there’s at least several decades of music, maybe more that could come out of that. Certain things open other things up. Who is doing that in NY right now? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s happening in jazz, but maybe it’s happening in Indie Pop music, or maybe it’s happening in jazz. That’s interesting. I don’t think of genres. If you have style, you have style. What you really like, If you keep doing that, that becomes your style. It’s convincing. My history of music is about trying to be practical and at the same time having this love of certain things I developed and I’m able to do to some degree.

I don’t think it’s possible to play “out of time”. It’s all rhythm. Some of the stuff I would do, people would say that I’m playing “out of time”. The whole thing is just like an undulation. Everything is a drum. This room is a drum. Everything is a reverberation. It’s all dressed up. We are presenting ourselves to each other. Our response to it from an aspect of the reverberation, that’s a subjective thing. All of a sudden, the thing itself is talking to itself. This idea of “outside of time”...Even in terms of sound and in terms of material, there’s interstellar space or outside of the solar system, or outside of galaxy, and then there is other galaxy. So what’s the difference between inside and outside? It’s all the same thing. Music is like that, rhythm is like that. The repetition in the rhythm, when you divide that up, it’s all in 2 or 3. If it’s just one beat...Imagine playing a 20min piece of music where there’s not a second beat. And you can do it. One beat, and second beat, so there’s a duration of space between those two. So the second beat would be like the end of the 20 minutes span. That’s like a second beat, cause there’s a space before you started the music and there’s a space after. It’s like two beats. There’s a silence before you started and silence after. It’s just the space between two beats. Or space before the beat. It’s amazing what that is. It’s a mystery. It’s danceable. But can you dance if you just played one beat? I think you can, but culturally we just don’t do that.

When I talk about rhythm, I can’t really talk about it because it’s mysterious to me. But there are these aspects of it, they are attractive, this repetition that everyone is attracted by. Obviously I know there’s a level of expectations that allows the body to move because there’s order. I understand that, but there’s something mysterious about it. And I think I’m all for it. I’m not against it, but if there is just one beat, as if it were a big band or something, the whole thing culminates and does something. That’s fine also. We can be open to things that are for us. We fit in here, this is our world, this is for us. If you can’t hear rhythm in a different way, maybe there’s a way to allow yourself to pick up on it, especially in spring and you open the window, all the things are shuffling around, with birds and things. You start to realize that there’s something attractive and what’s attractive is that there’s a level of expectation that’s fulfilled. This is why I don’t call one inside or outside, or one repetitive or non-repetitive. I understand what people mean by that, but maybe it’s all repetitive, it’s just so subtle what it implies.


Randy is featured on Rema Hasumi's Billows of Blue - Ruweh 004

Older Post