Gerry Hemingway – It’s your job as an audience to take a risk

Marta Jundziłł

Gerry Hemingway is a remarkable drummer who is not afraid of any musical challenge. For 10 years he’s lived in Switzerland. Recently he has recorded an album with Izumi Kimura and Barry Guy. How did their cooperation begin? What does moving to Switzerland mean to an American? And finally: what is the key to grasp improvised music?

You are on the improvising scene for more over than 40 years. What had changed in free music during those years?

I started performing professionally in 1972. I started to play the drums in 1965. From the very beginning, even before I made a living as a musician, I explored playing that came from what I felt and what I loved. In the earliest times, I may not have understood a great deal of the craft of the instrument but I did understand how to channel feeling into what I could do. In some respects that is one element that has not changed, but has certainly refined over these many years.

Perhaps before we go any further in this discussion I should address your chosen term, ‘free music’. Like the musical term ‘Jazz’, over time it has acquired so many definitions, sub definitions as well as misunderstandings, that in order to be clear about a term like ‘free music’, we need to agree on what exactly the content and methodologies are of this term for music, so that we can avoid assumptions and possible misunderstandings.

I am a composer, a percussionist, an improviser, a singer and sometimes I am also working in the visual arts, primarily in moving image. When I am engaged in improvised music that is generated from the players without pre-ordained instruction, structure or agreements, we might call this “free music” but I prefer the term, improvised music.

One of the things that has changed, in my point of view is the breadth of materials and the width of content that is employed when players of great experience get together and create musical interchange and spontaneous construction.

As a player over time I have come to appreciate the effect an audience has on the experience and possibility of improvised music. The audience, which in my current experience, is more and more interested in improvised music, is also part of the music making process. They are present as witnesses, and for the way they provide concentration and energy to the process in which the music takes shape and meaning.

In Poland a lot of people do believe that improvised music is rather „demanding” and „hard to understand”. Is it possible to understand free jazz? Do you understand free jazz? What is the key?

There is no key, there is however experience. Like appreciating good food, literature and cinema, you develop taste as a listener. You increase your sophistication by accumulating experiences, some of which you enjoy, and others that perhaps you don’t enjoy as much. You see that the players are willing to take the risk to create something in real time, so its your job as an audience to take a risk as well, to try to make sense of it and be in the moment like the musicians are. Concerts are the rare opportunity to put away the digital world of connectivity and enter the analog world of sound, where as a listener, you have the opportunity to be completely present. For an hour you don’t have to respond to a text or a responsibility. That alone is a great gift and an opportunity for reflection and growth.

Recently you’ve recorded „Illuminated Silence” in trio. How did your cooperation with Izumi Kimura begin?

She heard me perform at a festival in Switzerland, along with a colleague of hers, who I was only just beginning to perform with, bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Not long after that I was invited to Ireland to teach at the school Ronan helped create near Dublin, and it’s also the school where Izumi teaches. We spoke more then, and I was introduced to her playing and her music through her recordings. It was very clear that she had a remarkable grasp for evoking landscape, narrative, poetics and huge range of emotions. Her background in interpreting contemporary composition and classical forms also elevated her ability to articulate nuanced detail as an improviser.
Eventually she created an opportunity for me to come again to Ireland to perform in duo with her and this included a period of about a week where we could practice improvising openly and also with structure. I appreciated her openness and her desire to explore the very challenging as well as rewarding music we risk to create without any pre-ordained material.

And one year later the project as a trio with Barry Guy was realized. It included a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center as well as two concerts and the recording you mentioned.

You’ve played a lot with Anthony Braxton – an indisputable guru of free music. What is the most precious thing, which you had gained from this cooperation? 

I beg to differ about the term “indisputable guru of free music” as that hardly encompasses the range, depth and humanity of this very wonderful human being. Its not to disregard that he is an outstanding improviser, which he certainly is, but that would be like calling him a “saxophonist”, it is accurate but it misses so much of what he as an artist has contributed to the forward momentum of musical innovation and the verification that there is indeed a future for creative thinking and invention.
It would therefore be difficult to reduce my appreciation of the many years we have known each other, including the eleven years I was a member of his quartet, to one element. But I could say that my sense of possibility was given courage and nutrition from the experiences we shared. I so appreciate his multidimensional logic, intolerance of reductionism and his remarkable sense of humor, which is crucial for survival and facing the many adverse situations we endured together. Anthony sincerely believes in and offers us all a tremendous joy in the proposition of being a human being. He is an invaluable gift to us all.

In your discography you’ve got many duo’s album. What do you get from playing in this format? Do you prefer playing in duos or in bigger ensembles?

I prefer every possible way of making music, small, large, composed, improvised, electronic, acoustic, there is little that does not interest me. Duos are a big part of my discography, but not if you look at the whole of the recordings I have made.

The duo, I think many musicians would agree, is closest to a conversation, it is therefore the most transparent form of interaction, like a string quartet is to a composer, in a way. It is where we can often see/hear the craft of invention manifest at a speed that is perceivable for most listeners. I am fond of the duo, and I perhaps even more fond of the solo, having now released a total of 6 solo recordings. Those are very significant in my discography.

Playing drums is connected basically with the rhythm. But for you rhythm is not enough. What is the most melodic potential of drums? How can you get melody from drums?

Playing music is often connected with rhythm, but if it were only rhythm that might limit the range of possibilities – so I think we need to see my central instrument as well as any instrument in broader terms. Drums have traditionally a function to provide rhythm in many musical contexts, but we are a long way from limiting a drummer to this function. From the early innovations of Sunny Murray and many others, the role of drums has became multi-dimensional. One could observe that offering color as a percussionist would in an orchestral setting, or providing melodic input as Max Roach did so eloquently in his accompaniment and solo playing. How about the way a drummer like Edward Blackwell, provides so many remarkable examples of rhythmic, polyphonic and timbral counterpoint?

I am oriented towards pitch or frequency as a musician almost more then anything else. I relate most quickly (and with a priority) to harmonic, melodic and sonic elements, the frequencies of others and my own instrument while playing. It matters which sound I choose in relation to all the frequencies I hear as I play.

How long do you live in Switzerland?  Why have you decided to move there?

I live here for 10 years. I was offered a job to teach at the Hochschule Luzern. I have been teaching at different points of my life. At the time of the offer to come here I was teaching in NYC at the School for Jazz & Contemporary Music (part of the New School). I currently teach drums, composition, improvisation, electronic music, music history and songwriting principally.

Is it your place on Earth?

It seems so. I am happy here, as a place to live. I am an avid swimmer and hiker and the nature I am surrounded with is a gift that I make great use of on a daily basis. Nature has always been hugely significant in feeding my soul and inspiring and supporting my physicality and my desire to create.

What are the biggest differences between living in the U. S. and Europe?

Well I am not living in the EU. Switzerland is a different universe to some degree then the rest of Europe. One difference is the multiplicity of language, at least where I live – in the German part. I love that and find that often in the States many people are only speaking and communicating in one language (sometimes in certain areas, Spanish or Chinese appear as a second language). I think learning multiple languages, which is more common in this country, makes people more flexible and open minded, and more interested to communicate with people different then themselves.

And what about improvisation? Is there a difference between the European and American approach to improvisation?

I can’t answer that in any general way. It’s a player by player issue and does not really fall into any easy or clear categorization by geography. Perhaps you could in some cases say Americans are more blues based and Europeans more tied to folk traditions that are rooted in Europe, but I can almost find as many exceptions to that statement as proof of it. I am an American teaching a lot of things about American musical identity and social history to my students here – that alone is one step towards us sharing our parallel traditions and histories.

Recording with a legend, touring whole world, invitations to various, musical projects – you’ve already managed it. What is your definition of fulfilment?

I am not sure which legend you are referring to, perhaps Anthony Braxton? but then what of Reggie Workman? Cecil Taylor? Derek Bailey? Charles McPherson?  John Cale? I am grateful, very grateful for these many experiences, as they have all been enriching and inspiring. I hope in my own way, via teaching and my collaborations with many younger musicians I have met since moving here, that I can pass long the experience of what I have assimilated over all these years and the therefore insure the continuum of creative music.