Regular readers of this site will be familiar with composer, pianist, arranger and researcher Steve Tromans. He has contributed a whole series of Deep Thought pieces, extensions of his academic thesis, and has also featured in Garry Corbett’s Stolen Moments series. His albums and concerts have also been reviewed here. But, on 2015 General Election Day, I thought it would be useful to get Steve’s thoughts on a range of things, with politics – specifically his latest project, Days Of May – as the springboard.
Q You have been – and are – involved in a lot of musical projects, both of your own making and of other’s. What’s different about this one? And why now?
A Politics, in a word. It is true that I’ve always liked to be involved in as many different kinds of music-making activity as possible, and I get a real kick out of devising new projects and “getting them out there to the people”, as it were – but this is the first time I’ve explicitly acknowledged the political dimension in everything I’ve done over the last couple of decades. There’s a quote of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze that runs: “If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control” (in Negotiations, 1995, p. 176). I like to mull over an idea for a few weeks – in this case, the role of the artist in society, the expression of musical thought as a force for change – thinking through the implications for music-making, who would be best to ask to participate in making that music, and so on and so forth. And then I get in touch with one of the many event promoters in town with a view to putting the event together – in this case, the two ladies of inestimable energy and enthusiasm who run the Ort Cafe in Balsall Heath. More power to their collective elbows! And then I get down to the business end of composing the stuff and getting parts ready for the performers – in the case of the current project, some old and some relatively new collaborations in the creative form of Sid Peacock, Ruth Angell, Tymoteusz Jozwiak, and Bruce Coates. All these different agents and elements human and non-human come together in the collective, complex process we call music-making that makes for an extraordinary model of social interrelation and mutual coexistence and you’ve got yourself a premiere of new art in next to no time. Birmingham’s very good at making new things happen.
Q What do you think of the Birmingham jazz scene at present? Do you think it has a specifically Birmingham ethos? And if so, what is this ethos?
A A good deal, as you can gather. On the account of those longer in the tooth than I, there’s always been a great scene here. By my own account, and following on from what I just said, I would add that this is certainly a very exciting time to be alive and working as a jazz musician in Birmingham. Your choice of the term “ethos” is interesting, though, since it can refer to not only the spirit or character of a given community or culture, but also that of a person – that’s the use the Ancient Greeks made of it, and it is their word to use, after all! For me, the key thing about the Birmingham scene – its ethos, if you like – is that it is at the same time both personal and communal in spirit. With my research head on, I’d say it operates affectively [sic] by means of the singular and exemplary, rather than the general and particular. I guess that should be the subject of a future Deep Thought article, but to put it in more everyday terms: each musician involved in the scene is both unique in their own manner of practice, but is also exemplary of the scene itself, since everyone knows everyone else – no matter how indirectly. That’s the benefit of the scale of the city centre and the events happening in and around it: nothing’s too distant or disconnected from other things that are taking place. Back to that Deleuze quote from earlier.
Q Do you sometimes wish you lived and worked in London?
A Never once! I’d miss out on everything that’s going on here, and why on earth would I want to do that? Besides, I’ve played in London lots of times, despite hailing from Birmingham – it’s not hard to get to, in this modern age of the horseless carriage.
Q You are doing Days Of May twice, two weeks apart, in the same venue. What’s the reasoning behind this. Why should people come to both events?
A It’s a time/difference thing – to perform the material twice in two different ways on two different occasions. The idea came out of a chance I had earlier in the year to gig a set of originals twice in the same day, and explore that extraordinary quality of difference that makes improvised music so attractive, from a performer’s and audience member’s perspective. That earlier opportunity never came off, unfortunately, but this time it’s written in to the core structure of the work as a whole. Everyone knows there’s more than one way of playing the same stuff – listen to the way Miles Davis explored the same set of standards in vastly different ways in the 1950s and 1960s, as just one example – but who ever gets the chance to make that the defining principle of a new piece of art? It’s all about putting the time back into the mix, foregrounding the fact that every performance is a complex interrelation of different temporalities (see my Deep Thought article from February 2014, Neither derivative nor imitative: Presence and timeliness in music made live, for a much longer treatment of this theme).
If folks can only make one of the days in May to come down to Ort, that’s fine – a gig is a gig is a gig, after all, and it promises to be a top night with the combined talent involved. But anyone who catches both gigs – well, they’re really going to get the chance to immerse themselves in the full temporal revolutionary musical experience. Music in the Time of Revolution/Revolution in the Time of Music – you get the idea. Recommended.
Q What other projects do you have in mind in the future? Or are there past projects that you would like to return to?
A A little of both, actually. I recently revisited my Howl project from 2004, giving performances in Birmingham at the Ort Cafe a couple of months ago, and at one of Sam Marchant’s Beat City nights back in 2013 (at Churchill’s Snooker Club – literally an underground venue for new jazz, now sadly closed). I originally planned for Howl: a musical setting to be the first of a four-part series of settings of key publications of the Beat Generation: Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road, Corso’s Bomb, and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Even though excerpts from each of the other parts have been presented over the years, and Bomb was performed at the Yardbird Jazz Club back in 2009 (by myself, Sid Peacock, Chris Mapp, and Miles Levin), it would be gratifying to find a way to present all four in some way at a suitable event in Birmingham in the coming year or years. In my experience, audience interest in the Beat Generation remains evident, and is pleasingly cross-disciplinary and cross-generational. Okay promoters, you heard it – over to you, please!
Q What music are you listening to at the moment? And what are you reading?
A Music-wise, I’ve been checking out a good deal of the composer and political activist Cornelius Cardew, and would heartily recommend readers have a listen to at least some of his extraordinary work The Great Learning (1968-1971). The movement entitled Paragraph Two is a nice place to start, being an epic battle between massed percussion and a 70-strong choir invoking the power of the waterfall and deep meditational exercises – sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It is. And as with most things these days, you can easily find it online to try before you buy – so go have a listen in your lunch break.
Book-wise: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. His argument in favour of the human condition beyond the question of divine or teleological purpose is staggering – and uplifting in the most human of ways. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Available from all good booksellers, and some bad ones, too.
Q7: What do you consider your greatest musical achievement?
A: If there’s a greatest it’s not really for me to say, is it. Hopefully, though, somewhere along the line there’ll be something that’ll resonate with enough folks to qualify in those kinds of terms… But I do know my proudest moment: I was 17 and I won third place in the Yamaha International Electone Festival in Toyko, playing the first piece I ever composed. No one expected me to do any good, and I had no prior pedigree of achievement at that level, or anywhere near it – I just won through each of the other stages in the competition, right from the local heat in my hometown. It was like living something out of a dream and nothing can ever really top that. When I remember that night back in November 1991, it gives me heart that maybe just maybe there’s a chance for a human society based on principles of merit over privilege. That Deleuze quote again.
- You can hear Steve, Sid Peacock, Ruth Angell, Tymoteusz Jozwiak, and Bruce Coates performing Steve’s Days Of May: Music In the Time Of Revolution at Ort Cafe on 14 and 29 May. More here.
- Find out more about Steve Tromans here.