Contrasts are the fuel of creation - interview with Fernando Ulzión

Piotr Wojdat

How and when did you start making your own music?

Fernando Ulzión: There has always been a tension between a tremendous desire to express and a drive to silence and disappear. Since I was a child. If we add a mixture of ineptitude, laziness, insecurity, and lack of esteem, until less than ten years ago I never set out to show my music in public. Even today there is practically no time when I wonder about the opportunity to add my voice to the huge amount of voices that appear in the public sphere. In this sense, I remember the words of Jorge Luis Borges (a writer whom I admire precisely for his irresolvable games between logic and absurdity) when he lamented the damage that the printing press had done to the history of literature. Cioran also wrote that "as art sinks into a dead-end, artists multiply."

The thing is that with about sixteen I started recording songs by beating a Spanish guitar I had at home, putting plastic forks between the strings and the fret and other junk; on top of it, it made noise from a blender and vacuum cleaner or left several keys on an electric keyboard pressed... Several friends learned to play conventionally with that same guitar but I either did not want or cannot. They formed some bands and I only taught those tapes to a couple of people or less. Later, with the computer, I started playing with the sounds: I manipulated recordings of popular carols... I also tried to record all the words in the dictionary to play them at high speed to somehow end the language and other unfinished stories like cutting the “Metal Machine Music” by Lou Reed in tracks of a second and then superimpose them in a loop of an infinity second. Those recordings were already only for me. Time goes by and with about thirty-something years, around 2009, my girl Silvia had the brilliant idea of giving me an alto saxophone Jupiter (which I still play today) to get me out of the hole in which the work routine I was getting into. I started poking around with the saxophone, I signed up for some private classes that I left due to lack of time and interest until the company I worked for bankruptcy and I was unemployed. For me those two years of unemployment were wonderful: I began to spend more time playing the saxophone in a self-taught way and I decided to record a record in the living room of my house that self-published under the name of Ulzion.

From there I meet up with certain friends and begin to meet people who are working on the experimental music from the Basque Country, fundamentally Miguel A. García, and I integrate into the tiny improvised music scene that takes place around the Larraskito Club from Bilbao. About three years ago Chilean cellist Matías Riquelme arrives from Paris to Bilbao and we begin to collaborate with a duo until today.

Currently, in addition to this duo, I am in other projects. Orbain Unit is a quintet formed in 2015 of free-jazz-noise with two drums, bass and electric guitar and saxophone that we publish a disc on the net-label Repentino Records. The Txaranga Urretabizkaia, a formation of exclusively wind instruments with about twelve amateur members that mix music, actions, composition, experimental and popular with an unprejudiced and at the same time deeply critical view of the artistic fact. 
As one point in Peer Gynt says: "I am, as I said, a simple self-taught person who has not learned anything with any method...”

What is your idea for improvised music?

FU: Improvised music appeals to me because it unites a large number of tensions without any solution but that requires great involvement from the performers. In a way, it implies a deep commitment to failure. It is a continuous contradiction, a struggle of opposing forces. I consider it one of the artistic expressions that most questions the reason for its own existence, the process of creating a language, with its codes and its order of speech, its own destruction, and constant reinvention.

In his DNA the notions of creating and destroying practically simultaneously coexist. Sometimes you find that you have found something wonderful but you know that soon you have to leave it behind even if you do not know where you are going and if what comes next will be a disaster. You are committed to it. I am not religious or anything spiritual. It's clear to me that in the creation of music, and other artistic expressions, there is nothing but chemical and physical processes in an environment determined by socio-cultural aspects. Even so, I consider that in the practice of improvised music there is the idea of the search for the unnameable, the ineffable.

Listening to certain moments of the improvised music by Paul Bley, Joe Maneri, Tilbury, Evan Parker or the most uncontrolled flights by Albert Ayler (to name a few) I find a emotion that is virgin of predetermined ideas, paths not walked. That's what I'm looking for. Even knowing that an expert in music theory wants to rationalize me why this emotion is generated. Again, from a sceptical and agnostic point of view, improvised music would be related to negative or apophatic theology: its real understanding from the intellect is impossible. The comparison of improvisation with a conversation also bursts me a lot: it is more what separates improvised music from linguistic language than what unites them. In a conversation the voices do not overlap or appear at the same time; the narrative and the representative prevail when improvised music runs away from it (although there are neither borders nor vetoes); in a conversation, you have to give a convention of codes, a language, and some common rules so that it flows and not in improvisation. In the case of going to comparison, I would compare it with the plastic expression: the mixture of colours, shapes, materials, and textures.

Who was your big inspiration in the past and who is your inspiration right now?

FU: Since childhood, it's a constant search, or a getaway, for new ways of seeing, either to clarify or to darken. And the inspiration does not come solely, or mostly, from musicians. I remember what it meant to me to read at school “Demian” by Hesse, “Nausea” by Sartre or “As I Lay Dying” by Faulkner: there were very different ways of representing us and it was only the beginning. As for painting, it was incredible to discover Dubuffet and his critique of codified art and his praise of Art Brut and other informalism and material painting artists. It was also very important the scenic theories and thinking of Artaud.

As for music I had been raised in punk and from there I went looking for more risky proposals. Like many people of my age, with certain concerns, Sonic Youth was almost a revelation: today not so much for themselves but for the doors they opened. Thanks to them I came to Queen of Siam by Lydia Lunch and I became interested in No Wave. But also Throbbing Gristle and the doors to noise. I imagine that from this breeding ground part of my interest in subverting the norm, betraying tradition and constantly reinventing oneself. These ideas led me to deconstruct the saxophone, to manipulate it, to put objects in it. To dirty it. A capital record for me was Captain Beefheart's “Trout Mask Replica”. I bought it in CD format when I still didn't have a CD player. A friend recorded it to me on tape and when I heard those passages of soprano saxophone and bass clarinet I told myself that if one day I play music it would be what I wanted to do. That record led me to become interested in free-jazz.

In this sense, the inaugural album, with all the importance it entails, was “Science Fiction” by Ornette Coleman: I still enjoy Coleman's music and especially, now, Don Cherry. I think he was the most iconoclastic, free and unprejudiced of them all. And Albert Ayler arrived. Fundamentally, the album “Live in Greenwich Village The Complete Impulse Recording” the two brothers heading towards absolute nothingness without debts or straps on a mattress of wild ropes ... After almost logically lost his way, he returned and disappeared. And the eruption of Pharaoh Sanders' saxophone on the discs with Coltrane: multiphonics, hyper acute and other niceties that turned the sax into a noise generator. Then alone I find him almost insufferable. I don't know... Were you afraid to continue on that path or was it not yours?

The double-disc “Nonaah” by Roscoe Mitchell was another great discovery: crude and risky to the extreme. And Dolphy as an unattainable figure. Subsequently, the entire European free improvisation school starting with Evan Parker, AMM, Fuchs... In recent years the interest has focused more on those who are capable of generating what I call low-intensity deep fire: Bley, Giuffre, Maneri, Kurtag, Webern, Scelsi... And Steve Lacy as a unique figure for all his acidity and inventiveness and rereading.

For some time now, what I have been thinking about and have detected in some saxophonists is an obsession with the technical control of the instrument. They are incredible saxophonists with a great mastery of extended and unconventional techniques but to the point that I feel they are sound tamers; They do not play but domesticate. Everything is perfectly measured and controlled. There is no opportunity for error or failure. Personally, it doesn't motivate me. I continue to listen to a lot of music although very little done today. Apart from all that baggage that continues to bustle inside me, the greatest inspiration is the rest of the musicians with whom I am lucky to play. You’ve work a lot with Matías Riquelme. How is to work with him? We come from very different worlds and I think there lays one of the best qualities of our work together. Contrasts are the fuel of creation. It is very difficult for someone with a musical training as high as Matías to lend himself to playing with a person with a technical background as scarce as mine and who is also willing to deepen and develop that union. It is also very difficult for someone with their ability to turn their backs on the “academy” and embrace the most ungrateful and risky side. We share the commitment for improvised music and the construction of a language in constant mutation but with the need to express. He brings his sensitivity but also his wisdom: he knows how to react to give coherence to my unexpected changes. Of course, when you improvise for the first time with other musicians, which is very exciting. But when improvised with the same person the implications are deeper and the intensity less bright but more lasting and complex. It is another of those contradictions implicit in this music.

You’ve released an album for Discordian Records. Could you tell us more about this record?

FU: It is a record recorded in a trio under the name of La Rastres with Matías Riquelme on cello, Miguel A. García on electronics and I in alto and soprano saxes. The three of us have been working together for a while. Previously we had a project, Scholls, which started from open compositions: there were closed electronic bases and certain guidelines on each track. About these guidelines, Matías and I could improvise and Miguel A. manipulated our sound in real-time. On some occasions, we met at the premises only to improvise. Matías took the recorded material in several of those sessions, cut it out, manipulated it, edited it, sent it to El Pricto (hyper-active musician from the Barcelona scene and owner of the Discordian label) and published the album.

For some lovers of pure improvisation, it will be an aberration that the recorded material is subsequently manipulated (and not only edited) but we are not believers of purity. It seems to me that it is a disc that responds to a concept: decomposition. In Spanish, the word “compose” refers to the work of “compose music”. However, when we talk about "decomposing" we want to mean "split up" or "upset" or "the degradation of organic matter". In this disc, several ways of decomposition are set in motion: the linear discourse of the song, the conventional use of instrumentation, even the reproduction of recorded material. There is an eagerness to build through destruction.

You don’t have your own website. Are you not familiar with promoting your own music?

FU: It's curious. I studied journalism at university. When I finished my studies, I spent several years working as a press officer for a legal association and editing his magazine for judges and lawyers. Then I left the profession.

Every year I spent in college I was more disenchanted and in the end, I ended up unbelievable. I recognize that I am a disaster in that regard. I'm supposed to know the tools to carry it out, but I'm not interested. I play because people who know me call me and because in the projects in which I intervene someone takes care of that part. If no one would call me then I would continue playing. It's wonderful that they listen to you and see your recognized work, of course, but it doesn't obsess me.

Luckily or unfortunately I don't live from music and I don't need to promote myself. I don't want to seem disrespectful to those who strive to survive in this complicated world. Quite the opposite. What comes will come. I'm not professional, but art doesn't have to be completely professional. But the promotion is a very ungrateful but essential work. Those who perform it in a dignified way have my admiration. I do not reject it: we are doing this interview.

What are your music plans for this year?

FU: Right now the most exciting and incredible thing is the recent publication in the Fundacja Sluchaj! label of the duet album with Matías Riquelme "La Trahison de Mots". I still hallucinate with the idea of sharing seal with such illustrious musicians and that I deeply admire. It is a dream that I must thank the effort and determination of my partner Matías Riquelme, mainly, and the head of the label, Maciej Karłowski, for devoting his attention to an unknown project like ours. We recorded the album in the church of Apodaka, a tiny town in the Basque Country, with Joxean Rivas in production with his mobile team. Much of the achievement of this recording is due to the building itself, to the point of considering it the third member of the duo.

Everything came out in a single session. I still listen to it and I find it hard to believe that I am part of that music. It is fascinating how the barrier between the disappearance of sound and silence becomes invisible in that place. To the point where one feels that he is the author of silence (which would be great). Recently, reading “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles (novel on the other hand colonial and ethnocentrism) there was the following phrase that perfectly expresses this idea: "The first slight noises that crossed it seemed variations of the fundamental silence that were made."