Roulette Interview: Spotlight on Che Chen

Che Chen with Talice Lee and Patrick Holmes
Wednesday, May 9, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

Interview with David Weinstein, Roulette Director of Special Projects

What is your first musical memory?

It’s not exactly musical, but when I was 7 or 8 I was waiting for the school bus one day and an older kid walked up munching on a cookie. He was chewing and breathing through his mouth at the same time and I could hear these hissing/crunching noises being filtered as his mouth changed shape. I didn’t  understand it then the way I just described it, but for some reason that really stuck with me and I tried making my own mouth sounds after that. Then I studied piano briefly and badly, but by the time I was 12 or so I’d saved up enough lawn mowing money to buy an electric bass out of the local paper’s classified section. I had a eureka moment when I discovered that instead of trying to learn the changes to my favorite songs, I could sound one of the open strings over and over again and make up stuff against it, which is basically what I still love doing the most: improvising against a drone.

Describe the project you are developing for Roulette.

I wanted to go deeper into some ideas that we’ve touched upon in 75 Dollar Bill, my band with Rick Brown, but that haven’t been the main focus. Microtonality, sustained tones, extreme slowness, a more nuanced modal concept. I’ve been constructing my own tunings and modes for this piece. Indian music, Arabic Maqam, and Mauritanian music have always been fascinating and elusive to me and I’ve taken certain ideas from these traditions, but I’ve tried not to take too much of their “sound.” I’m more interested in the deep structural logic of how melodies and tunings are constructed. The piece will be performed by a trio with Patrick Holmes on clarinet, Talice Lee on violin and myself on bass recorder and electric organ. Everyone also sings. It has composed elements–melodic cells and unison lines–but most of the performance will be the musicians taking turns improvising on the modes while being supported by the other two players, with everything framed within these microtonal organ chords.

All the profiles of you mention the Mauritanian encounter. What is the whole story? How has that influenced you?

No way to put the whole story in words, but I went to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (in West Africa) in 2013 and took guitar lessons with a phenomenal musician named Jeich ould Chigaly. I should really say I took lessons with his whole family, because I also got schooled by his wife, the incredible singer and ardin player, Noura mint Seymali, and even his then 5-year old son, Mohammed, as well as other relatives and friends passing thru their house. In the Moorish modal system there are five main modes, each with a “black” and “white” form. Jeich showed me one form each day so it couldn’t have been anything but the briefest introduction, but it still completely reconfigured my approach to playing guitar and really threw me into the deep end with a lot of the things I was thinking about. It was also incredibly eye opening just to be in that part of the world and to get a glimpse into how music functions in a society that is so different from America. I was there for less than two weeks but I am still digesting the experience.

Your use of electronics tends to be cassette players, radios, even toy instruments. Are you averse to high-tech or is there a special magic to the lo-fi tools?

In general I prefer the directness of instruments but when I use electronics that kind of physical relationship to the sound is still something that I look for. That’s what makes it musical to me. Magnetic tape is great for that. I think if I was a little younger it might be a different story, but I understand how to hack analog technologies in a way that I don’t with digital technology at all.

Talk about quarter-tone tuning, microtonal music, your interest in overtones. These clearly enter into your guitar and violin playing and even with sax and keyboards.

My first day in Mauritania my Jeich took me to a dirt floored workshop in Nouakchott where a guy refretted the cheap guitar I had brought with me in quarter-tones. He used a hack saw, a file, pliers, a pair of calipers that looked about 200 years old and some super glue. It took him less than an hour. The traditional Moorish instruments are all fretless for playing untempered intervals, so to make use of guitars, they put a new fret in between every two of the guitar’s normal frets. The result is a kind of 24-tone equal tempered fretboard (rather than the usual 12), but they use a lot of intervals related to the 11th harmonic, which are very close to quarter-tones, so it sort of works out. Going to Mauritania was great because I got to see the music in context. I think a lot of microtonal music here is very theoretical or academic but this was wedding music–people were partying to this stuff! That was another thing I took away from it. My interest in other kinds of tuning really just comes from listening to sounds, the harmonic series, etc. I don’t have a problem with equal temperament, on the contrary I think it made a whole new kind of music possible that was never possible before. But if you are playing melodically against a pedal tone, especially if you are playing slowly, equal temperament really becomes a handicap. It limits you to a small set of intervals, most of which are quite out of tune. When you start looking at untempered intervals there so many other colors, which are both more vivid and more harmonious.

Assess the current New York music scene, especially the newer projects that you have encountered. Who inspires you? Where do you go to find them? And don’t be shy to mention the downside or challenges that you’ve observed.

I’ve been in the city for about 15 years at this point and feel like I really grew up here musically. It’s great to see a lot the people that I’ve known for years really starting to crush it now. Some are more out in public while others are privately plugging away, but I feel like many of my peers are really starting to speak in their own voices now, which is inspiring. It’s a slow growth thing. It’s also incredible that people like Phill Niblock, Henry Flynt or Yoshi Wada are still around town going about their business, and they are pretty easy to find if you want to. Or that Mamady Kouyate runs a west African guitar band that plays every week in Brooklyn. As for difficulties, it seems harder than ever for non-institutional, underground music spaces to exist. Without places to experiment and incubate ideas, let alone just to congregate, the community can’t really stay viable. Despite a pretty hostile real estate environment, there are some real gems out there, like the Sunview Luncheonette in Greenpoint or the Outpost in Ridgewood, where I’ve been running a monthly series for the past year or so.  

William Hooker: The Great Migration

What: Through music, narrative, and dance, William Hooker tells the story of African-American migration from 1935 to 1950.
When: Thursday, April 5, 2018, 8pm
Where: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave Brooklyn, 2/3/4/5/A/C/G/D/M/N/R/B/Q trains & the LIRR
Cost: $20 Online, $25 Doors
Info: www.roulette.org / (917) 267-0368
Tickets: http://roulette.org/event/william-hooker-the-great-migration/

Brooklyn, NYAvant-garde percussionist William Hooker offers a multi-disciplinary contemplation and exploration of African-American migration from the American South to points north during the years 1935–1950. The Great Migration features music (with veteran performers like William Parker and David Soldier), dance, video, and narratives from 97-year-old Alton Brooks and Nannie Lampkin, who experienced this historical period firsthand.

A body of uninterrupted work beginning in the mid-seventies defines William Hooker as one of the most important composers and players in jazz. As bandleader, Hooker has fielded ensembles in an incredibly diverse array of configurations. Each collaboration has brought a serious investigation of his compositional agenda and the science of the modern drum kit. As a player, Hooker has long been known for the persuasive power of his relationship with his instrument. His work is frequently grounded in a narrative context. Whether set against a silent film or anchored by a poetic theme, Hooker brings dramatic tension and human warmth to avant-garde jazz. His ability to find fertile ground for moving music in a variety of settings that obliterate genre distinctions offers a much-needed statement of social optimism in the the arts.

William Hooker – Percussion
Ras Moshe – Reeds, Flute
Eriq Robinson – Electronics, Images
Mark Hennen – Piano
Goussy Celestin – Narrator, DanceWilliam Parker – Bass
David Soldier – Violin, Banjo
Ava Mendoza – Guitar
Alton Brooks & Nannie Lampkin – Primary Narratives