Ned Rothenberg: Manifesting an Inner Diaspora

by Troy Collins

Ned Rothenberg © 2024 Claudio Casanova

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Ned Rothenberg performs on an array of woodwinds, including alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and shakuhachi. Rothenberg has long been internationally acclaimed for his solo music, which he has presented across the globe for the past four decades. His solo work uses an expanded sonic language palette that incorporates numerous extended techniques. One key element in extending his highly personalized instrumental voice is expanding conventional woodwind techniques to incorporate polyphony and microtones through the use of multiphonics, circular breathing, and overtones, enabling him to use his horns in melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic roles. As a composer he alternates between a wide diversity of styles and genres, ranging from austere contemporary classical settings to street-level jazz funk.

Born in Boston, Rothenberg graduated from Oberlin College and studied at Oberlin Conservatory, Berklee School of Music. He has lived and worked in New York City since moving there in 1978. His current and past collaborators include Evan Parker, Marc Ribot, Sainkho Namchylak, Masahiko Sato, Samm Bennett, Kazu Uchihashi, Paul Dresher, and John Zorn, among many others. In the past, he has led mid-size ensembles like Double Band and Power Lines; he currently leads the longstanding trio Sync, with Jerome Harris on acoustic guitar and acoustic bass guitar, along with Samir Chaterjee playing tabla. Rothenberg also recently co-founded the cooperative Lockdown Trio (created during the pandemic), with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionist Julian Sartorius.

Rothenberg has given workshops and masterclasses worldwide; his international touring schedule continues each year playing festivals, theatres, and clubs as a solo artist, bandleader, and collaborator. His newest recording for Clean Feed, Crossings Four, features a new band with Sylvie Courvoisier, Mary Halvorson, and Tomas Fujiwara. I interviewed Rothenberg during the winter of 2024, after the release of Crossings Four.


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Troy Collins: You moved from Boston to New York City in 1978, arriving at the tail end of the loft jazz scene, but just in time to be an early part of the then nascent Downtown scene. As many know, such scenes are largely dependent on real estate prices and zoning laws rather than just aesthetics. Since you’ve been living in NYC so long, how has the city changed and what do you see now in local music scenes, compared to when you first arrived?

Ned Rothenberg: Well, those dynamics have really been consistent over the years and are mirrored in the movements of all performing and visual arts which do not generate a large income. Artists and musicians continue to move further out into new areas, currently Bushwick and Ridgewood for example, and seed these communities with cultural fruit. Since I first came to New York, this has run from Soho, where I first lived, through Chelsea, Dumbo, East Village, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, parts of Harlem, and it’s just beginning now in the Bronx and is jumping to Philadelphia. Successful developers, most notably the billionaire David Walentas (he was the landlord of the original Kitchen in Soho and huge swaths of Chelsea and Dumbo), have capitalized on this by renting space to artists, who make the neighborhood “cool,” then as real estate values rise, kick them out to do residential and commercial development. Enterprising artists with some wherewithal sometimes manage to establish small institutions, like Roulette or National Sawdust, which survive such expulsions. Some of these, notably Issue Project Room, are actually the product of the city’s law requiring developers to create spaces which serve the public.

That’s just a rapid NYC-based overview of something that goes on around the world and could be fleshed out in a 1,000-page treatise. Musicians and artists are the unpaid cultural pioneers of urban geography in the modern world.

TC: Thinking of regional scenes, Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara – who are both featured on your new album, Crossings Four – are commonly considered part of a new Brooklyn scene. The album’s quartet is rounded out by Sylvie Courvoisier, with whom you’ve collaborated before, but this appears to be your first time working with Halvorson and Fujiwara. If so, how did you meet them and how did this particular project come to be?

NR: Well, I’ve actually known both Mary and Tomas for years. I’ve played occasional improv gigs with Mary, I remember inviting her for a particularly good one at the old Stone at least 10 years ago with Peter Evans, Alex Waterman, and myself. Mary and Sylvie have worked closely as a duo, as I guess you know. I’ve heard Tomas in various settings for at least 7-8 years and he’s come to some of my gigs - you have the typical back and forth where you express sincerely that “we really have to do something together.” And Mary and Tomas work together constantly. So, there was a very natural context for this. I knew all the players well and could compose music with them in mind.

TC: I recently read an interview with Ken Vandermark about his newest ensemble, which features much younger musicians than himself, all in their 20’s and 30’s. He claimed that he felt there was a definite difference in how they approached creative improvised music, in that genres and styles were not barriers to them and the technical aspects of extended techniques were not foreign to them either. Thinking of Mary and Tomas as an example, I’m wondering if you’ve had similar experiences with younger musicians?

NR: Well, while Mary and Tomas are about a generation younger than me, they are players of wide experience by now. Here I’m going to toot my own horn a bit. I think it was my generation, especially in New York that was the one that broke open the idea that all sorts of idiomatic elements (jazz/rock/hardcore/’ethnic’/classical) and their attendant techniques were fair game in creative improvisation. People like myself, Marc Ribot, Shelley Hirsch, John Zorn, George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Robert Dick, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, and many others made our music without first identifying it as any particular genre. And each of us employed a personal language of normal and extended techniques and a personal chemistry of stylistic influences. It was a contrast to many of our European predecessors who self-consciously wanted to avoid idiom (Derek Bailey even tried to claim his music was non-idiomatic but of course he created one!)

This back and forth between finding your own language in the grand mess of contemporary and world music and, alternatively, trying to create a “pure” expression through negative regulations (we will avoid pitches, pulse, melody, use only noise, or whatever) has continued at various times and places up to the present day.

I do agree that extended techniques have become more of a common language and younger musicians are more likely to have studied a variety of approaches, so that they bring a more commonly held palate of sonic expression to the table. And various locales have their own history in this regard. The AACM in Ken’s home of Chicago, was in many ways a precursor to what happened in NYC, especially given that so many of its stalwarts moved here.

TC: I agree with you that your generation (aka, musicians commonly associated with the Downtown scene) were definitely the first to smash genre boundaries. But there were still stylistic dividing lines even back then, if only those imposed by the press and/or marketing. I’m thinking of the Young Lions phenomenon, for example. But that’s a conversation for another time.

More pressingly, I just heard that Clean Feed Records may close shop this year. Your latest recording, Crossings Four (with Mary, Tomas, and Sylvie Courvoisier), as well as Lockdown and In Cahoots, were all released by Clean Feed. I’m curious, especially as an independent label owner yourself (of Animul Recordings) what your thoughts are on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

NR: Yikes, that’s news to me! But not surprising I’m afraid.

The record “business” has always been a lousy affair, but now it’s on a whole different level of futility, especially for small, artistically driven labels. Pedro Costa has done incredible work with Clean Feed, a true labor of love.

The convenience and economy of streaming trumps all (is there a pun there?) But musicians will always regret that one cannot really release an “album” in the same way, the totality of each release is largely atomized by listeners shuffling or jumping through their collections. And most of the time the fidelity is simply terrible – so ironic that more people listened to music at a higher level of sound 30 years ago than they do now.

I appreciate the hardcore fans who make the financial effort to support musicians and labels but making this a matter of choice is a killing development. Neither can survive in the Spotify model.

TC: What about a label like Tzadik? One that has (a far as I’m aware) no audio web presence, in that there’s no streaming or downloads available – you have to buy the actual CDs and/or LPs to hear the music. I realize Tzadik is somewhat of a rarity and is largely successful because of Zorn, but there are other, small independent labels that operate in a similar manner, like RogueArt, for example. Don’t you see that model as a potential alternative to streaming and subscription services? I’m mainly curious because you actually run a label.

(Full disclosure: I only stream and/or download music for review purposes at work and even then, begrudgingly as a necessary evil. I only listen to hard media at home.)

NR: Actually, John has recently put the Tzadik catalogue up on Apple Music and some other places, not sure if it’s on Spotify as I refuse to set foot there.

It’s a concession to reality I’m afraid, if you speak of holding out for hard media as model for operations, I’m afraid it’s really a model for obscurity.

Animul, my label, is also on Apple Music, Amazon, and of course Bandcamp, which is by far the best place. I would say Bandcamp is the best model, but I hear scary rumors about them as well. I admire holdouts like yourself, I’m mostly in a weird middle ground, I have about 100 gigs of high-quality sound files on my phone. Apple is always asking if I want to sync my library, but I’ve been warned it might lead to disaster ...

TC: Well, you obviously travel much more than I do, so it would be totally impractical for a travelling musician like yourself to not stream music nowadays. Much like eBooks - if one were an avid reader, but travelled all the time, it would simply be the most practical solution. Nonetheless, printed books still remain popular. I see far more of them than I do their electronic counterparts. I also continue to shop regularly for CDs and LPs in stores, both in person and online. It might not be a viable way for individual artists to rely on to make a living, but the fans are out there.

Personally, I find it a matter of “ownership.” A stream or a download is too ephemeral for me to attach any sense of importance to. They are convenient alternatives, but not sufficient replacements for “the real thing.” As you said, “musicians will always regret that one cannot really release an ‘album’ in the same way, the totality of each release is largely atomized by listeners shuffling or jumping through their collections.”

That said, do you still plan on continuing to have albums pressed in a physical format, or is the future digital only?

NR: I think I will hang in there with the physical as long as I have label partners who are up for it. Animul is probably done as far as that goes but I will probably release some reissues and live concert recordings on Bandcamp.

TC: I’ve noticed over the years that a number of musicians start their own labels, only for them to eventually fall by the wayside over time, for various reasons. Bobby Previte’s Depth of Field or Tim Berne’s Screwgun come to mind, for example. But then there are those that seem to gain a life of their own, like Zorn’s Tzadik, Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf, and Kris Davis’ Pyroclastic – the latest in a long line of similar efforts. Since you said you felt Animul might be finished, I’m curious what your experience was like running your own label? I’m assuming it must be a difficult labor of love – more business than art?

NR: I have to be honest, when I did Lumina, my LP label back in the ‘80s, I put in a lot of work with production and promotion. Animul (wordies note any connection to older name?) was also a labor of love but I farmed out the work and honestly never did enough promotion. Still, it has served its function and people looking for the music have found it. Bringing it TO people is a larger job which people like Kris and Dave are doing, which is admirable.

Zorn has created a subculture people seek out and I am honored to be part of that. Some of it has an artistic aspect and that’s what I’m best at – getting good sound, mastering, working with the graphic artists.

Selling the stuff is a business, and honestly has never been a very good business with creative music even going all the way back to the ‘80s – distributors going out of business and sticking labels with big losses (this just happened again to Zorn), people stealing the music, first by copying on cassette, now just downloading. I never wake up in the morning excited to try and market some recordings, I’d always rather practice or compose ...

TC: Speaking of practicing and composing, I know you do a lot of solo gigs in a years’ time versus ensemble performances. What is your typical schedule like in that regard and what advantages and/or disadvantages do you find performing solo versus in a group?

NR: Solo work has always been a central part of my oeuvre, it was really the area in which I first found my musical voice. I can’t say there is a “typical schedule,” I go through periods where there are no solo performances for a while and then maybe a cluster. In the early ‘80s I had a period where I played almost exclusively solo concerts for 4 years or so. It was a time of rapid growth, but it was also quite lonely running around by myself on the road. Now I try to mix it up. My next European trip includes some trio gigs with Sylvie Courvoisier and Julian Sartorius, then I go to Venice and have a residency at the Foscari University where I play solo and work on improvisation ideas with the student ensemble. We will play in one of these gorgeous Italian halls with the kind of live acoustics that I love for solo work. I’d say this trip is an ideal mix for me.

TC: When you play solo, how do you organize your sets? Do you use multiple horns, or focus on one? What about material? I’m assuming it’s all dependent on the setting and the particular nature of the engagement, but I was curious what the logistics were.

NR: Well, yes, it’s totally dependent on the setting and the nature of the travel. These days I no longer schlep all the instruments on the road, it’s become either/or between the alto sax and bass clarinet. But I do usually play all the horns I have with me – for the next tour I mentioned it will be alto sax, clarinet, and shakuhachi. If the room is not live or the PA is not good, I won’t play shakuhachi, it really needs resonance.

My favorite is to play acoustic in a resonant room, it’s a natural for horn players. I also often play 20 minutes or so solo in a group setting – which horn I play will depend on my mood, my reeds, the other music on the program. I organize my sets for variety and vibe, this has a lot to do with the room and the feeling I get from the audience.

TC: I’ve been listening back to your work over the years and was struck (again) by how singular your instrumental language is. You, more than any other musician of your generation that I can think of, seem to have mastered using circular breathing to perform long, looping lines that melodically incorporate multiphonics and tonal shifts.

I can’t think of anyone else using that sort of repetition in such a harmonically structured way in a “jazz” context. It reminds me more of classical minimalism or Eastern music. What was your initial inspiration for this approach and how do you feel it has changed over the years?

NR: From a technical aspect, it was a combination of listening to electronic music, which led me to seek new sound possibilities, and meeting and hearing Evan Parker, who showed me that using this language with repetitive strategies (made possible with circular breathing) could result in a complete sonic expression which made unaccompanied solo music work in modalities way past the single note lines for which woodwinds are designed. Musically, the main inspiration for me was African music and some other “world” musics. Specifically, the now out of print box set on Ocora, from 1966, Music of Chad, featuring Toupouri Orchestra music, amazing stuff in a polyrhythmic matrix where the players are often moving in a circle and can speed up and slow down together while playing intricate interconnected parts.

Also from 1966, The Music of the Ba-Benzélé Pygmies (sic - I know this is now considered a disrespectful term) on UNESCO that features the track that Herbie Hancock lifted for Headhunters with the girl singing and playing a whistle. The group pieces on that album are just incredible. It got me interested in this non-linear repetitive sound field. By non-linear I mean that the instruments are not designed to sound timbrally the same on all pitches. The Western instrumental ideal is timbral unity – a clarinetist should try to make his instrument sound as similar as possible in all registers. But in fact, the clarinet has registers that sound different, and I like to accentuate that with alternate fingerings where I can play the same pitch with a variety of tone colors. Then I mix these things along the lines of the African rhythmic matrix. 

Or I use shakuhachi as the instrument itself or a musical model, the bamboo flute I studied with masters in Japan, it also features a non-linear timbral palette, but in a meditative, spacious, melodic environment. Those are my two main musical mojos in solo music and they also inform my style as an ensemble improvisor. I’m just as interested in playing “ground” rhythmic or timbral parts as I am in normal horn ensemble function; I like to contribute to the central sonic motifs of what’s going on, not just play over the top of things like most horn players. This has been consistent over the years, but of course I’ve gotten into different materials and focused more on certain instruments in certain periods. I think the biggest “improvement” over time is that I don’t have the same tendency to overplay that I used to, I can choose my spots and know when to lay out or be simple. I don’t have the same athletic, technical capabilities that I used to, so it’s always good to try and substitute some wisdom for chops.

TC: Since you’re a multi-instrumentalist, I’m curious if your writing is horn-dependent, in the sense that you might write your compositions based around the range of one particular horn? Or do you write with other instruments in mind, finding the right horn after the fact. Or (of course) a combination of those or some other variables?

NR: Well, if I’m writing for myself with an instrument in mind of course I tailor things to my capabilities on that instrument. But I also write music without woodwinds and then I have to study the orchestrational situation in the chosen ensemble. Most importantly, I write for creative musicians in the Ellingtonian model, so most important is to give the player, myself, or someone else, a context in which to express their character. Something like Ghost Stories – my trio for pipa, cello, and percussion, this was equally a trio for Min Xiao Fen, Erik Friedlander, and Satoshi Takeishi. Even in my Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, done with the Mivos Quartet, I am writing for string players who can improvise, and the middle movement gives them a chance to comment on the writing done for them in the other movements.

TC: How does that approach work in your latest album, Crossings Four? Can you give an example of how you may have written a part differently or specifically for one of the members involved?

NR: On the opener, “Seersucker,” I had Sylvie fill in the piano part in her personal way and contribute a counter melody, that’s why it’s credited as a co-composition. With Mary, a lot is tailoring her effects with lines. Some of it is on the paper and some happens in rehearsal. Most of my written melodies were written on the instruments on which they are played. “Bob and Weave” exemplifies the non-linear aspects of the clarinet registers; “Tangled Tangos” is more saxophonic.

TC: The new quartet featured on Crossings Four seems indicative of your idiosyncratic approach towards ensemble instrumentation, in that you seem to favor unusual couplings rather than conventional instrumental combinations. You’ve led and/or co-led a number of impressive line-ups over the years (Double Band, Power Lines, etc.), so I’m curious, what ensembles do you currently tour with and/or keep active?

NR: I still play with Sync, my trio with Jerome Harris and Samir Chatterjee. Because Jerome is also a multi-instrumentalist, there are many combinations with Samir’s tabla: clarinet or bass clarinet with bass guitar; sax with guitar or bass; shakuhachi with lap steel (I dare say the only group using those two!). I added strings to Sync on the Inner Diaspora CD, but not just any strings – Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander.

Still, I have no issue with “conventional” instrumentation – I love writing for string quartet, I play sometimes in quartet with trombone or trumpet, bass, and drums, or just trio with bass and drums.

I love duos, and have had the most rewarding ones with Evan Parker, Sainkho Namtchylak, Marc Ribot, Sylvie Courvoisier, Masahiko Satoh.

Trios as well; Fell Clutch with Stomu Takeishi (fretless bass) and Tony Buck (drums) – I would love to get that one back together sometime and RUB, maybe the most overlooked but a super strong cooperative band with Kazuhisa Uchihashi on guitar and saxophone and Samm Bennett on drums and electronics. Yes, maybe if I’d worked harder on Animul those groups would be more well known ...

TC: Well, what can you do, nowadays? I've heard plenty of artists and labels complain that the music business has become dominated by PR firms, in that you really need a press agent to rise above the masses if you’re running your own label. Trying to do it yourself might be technically easier than it used to be (the tools are more readily available, and the internet is the great equalizer), but now the competition is far greater because of it. Perhaps being a well-established artist would make a difference, but maybe not.

Like you said, Zorn has created a subculture that people seek out, but he’s an exception to the rule, I think. Other artists from his and your generation (I’m thinking of say Ray Anderson, Hank Roberts, Mark Helias, etc.) are still plenty active, but trying to find out what they’ve been up to (touring, recordings, etc.) isn’t always that easy. Younger artists dominate the hype cycles, as do much older artists making come backs. It seems like being a well-established creative improvising musician of middle age might be the greatest hustle of all. Does any of this ring true to you?

NR: I really don’t want to sound bitter because I’m not. But the fact is, there is a fallow period that happens in relation to demand for a certain level of artist in let’s call it, late middle age. I remember trying to find out where Jimmy Giuffre was playing when he was about 60, and I couldn’t find him anywhere.

Promoters and critics know you and maybe they respect you, but if you haven’t recently come up with a surprise masterpiece, there is little to compel them to feel that you are “what’s happening.” I feel like my best career move is stay healthy and keep my playing together so I can add another line to the old joke:

Career Stages:

Who is Ned Rothenberg?
Get me Ned Rothenberg!
Get me a young Ned Rothenberg!
Who is Ned Rothenberg?

Ned Rothenberg, is he still alive? Get me Ned Rothenberg!

This is one of those jokes that also happens to be totally true.

TC: Sad but true. As a musician of “late middle age,” with all the experience and wisdom that connotes, is there anything you’ve learned during your career that you would have done differently, or perhaps advice that you would give to younger musicians now based on experiences you’ve had?

NR: You know the landscape has changed so much since I was young that I can’t with good confidence give sage advice. When I was 35, I thought I had a real handle on how my corner of the “music business” worked. I was touring in Europe and some in the States, doing both my own recordings and those for others, both “creative” and “commercial.” But now it’s such a hodgepodge. Everyone I know puts their “career” together in a slightly different way. Things I might change in hindsight are largely inapplicable.

But I will tell a story of something I regret even though I was “right.” I did a tour in the Soviet Union in 1987 in a quartet called FRAME with Tom Cora, cello, Elliott Sharp, guitars, and Peter Hollinger, drums. For the Moscow concert we were told that Melodya, the state recording company, wanted to record and release the concert. Sure enough, they showed up in a large truck with a fully equipped 24 track studio with Western gear! Because Elliott and Tom had complicated sound checks (the PA equipment was NOT western, it was junk) and I spoke better English than Peter I was appointed to “negotiate” the “deal” with Melodya. The man acting as translator was my future dear friend and angel of the Russian creative music scene, Nicolai Dmitriev. When I asked what we would be paid, the answer was 4 kopecks a record. That would be less than a quarter of a cent. When I asked if we could be paid in LPs, I was told, oh no! Paul McCartney made that deal and made “a fortune” selling them on the black market (I’m pretty sure this was a lie). Anyway, I had to refuse the deal as it was basically to record for nothing and give away all the rights. While objectively it was the proper move, today I wish we had done it! Even to have one copy of that LP would be a souvenir I would treasure. We got a standing ovation and people were screaming “FREEDOM” from the audience.

This is a dramatic example of NOT doing the reverse, which many musicians also regret: making a record because you are so hungry to record and getting ripped off. Think of all the great music we would not have if musicians hadn’t gotten robbed. It’s complicated, and I don’t yet have the wisdom to sort it all out. I can only tell my students, find what you love and work hard trying to do it well.

TC: That is quite the cautionary tale, but in retrospect, how could you have known the show would turn out so well? Your comment about all the great music we wouldn’t have if musicians didn’t get robbed makes me think of the entire ESP-Disk’ catalog! So true, sadly.

Speaking of international touring, many creative improvisers find touring in Europe far more lucrative than touring in the states. You mentioned an upcoming tour overseas, so I’m curious, what percentage of your gigs are conducted abroad?

NR: With the Moscow story, it wasn’t so much that we played so great (maybe we did? too long ago ...) it was that it was a particular and important moment in history that failed to be documented.

As for your next question – I’m touring far less than 20-30 years ago and teaching more. But yes, historically, going all the way back to Satchmo and Ellington, touring in Europe has been more lucrative and less debilitating than touring in the States. It’s largely more state support for the arts, shorter distances, and better transportation infrastructure. But overall, with gigs outside the NYC area, probably half my engagements are overseas.

TC: You previously hinted at an upcoming tour and some related gigs. Care to share any additional details about those, or anything else you might have planned next, like recordings or residencies?

NR: After this February thing I don’t think I’m back in Europe until the summer, some festival things which are not confirmed, so my superstitious self will not announce them. Oh, but England is part of Europe, no? I’m going to go visit Evan Parker in April and participate in his 80th birthday celebrations at Cafe Oto in London.

I’m working on two ideas in the early stages. Another Quintet for clarinet and string quartet – this time with the A clarinet. I got one a few years ago and realized how great it plays with strings – Brahms and Mozart knew something! Also, it was Jimmy Giuffre’s secret weapon. Then there is an overdubbed piece with special woodwind sounds and rhythms, after some of the things I did on the Opposites Attract record with Paul Dresher and my very first release, Trials of the Argo. But now I want to see what I can do with my Protools system, a whole other level of technology. That may come out on Kris Davis’ label, Pyroclastic.


© 2024 Troy Collins

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