FEDERICO UGHI is an Italian-born drummer and composer based in New York. He co-founded the grassroots, independent label 577 Records in 2001. 577 grew out of a series of house concerts at 577 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. JEFF SNYDER is a composer, improviser and instrument-designer, and also Director of Electronic Music at Princeton University. Writer Dan Bergsagel, recently moved to New York, interviewed them both and asked them to look forward to the Forward Festival, in which they have prominent roles, and will be featuring a solo performance by Rachel Musson:
“Are you from London?”
This is not how conversations about jazz in New York normally start, with the interviewer being interrogated first. But like my story and many others, Federico Ughi’s transatlantic jazz story started in London, when he was 21 and moved to Hackney. For six years he was part of the jazz scene centred around the Vortex, “I moved from Rome to London to play music, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I started getting introduced to improvised music by these great musicians. When in 2000 I moved to New York, I met Daniel Carter.”
Daniel Carter and Ughi are at the heart of 577 Records, and the eclectic open approach that the record label takes comes in part from their musical flexibility, and how they met. “When I first moved to New York I went out every single night for six months trying to really see as much music as I could, to see who was there,” recalls Ughi, “I kept seeing Daniel in different situations every night, each night in a different band, a different club, a different kind of music. He was always there, and always sounded amazing. How is it possible that this guy can play all these different types of music and still sound like himself?”
Eventually Ughi mustered the courage to ask to play with Carter, starting with a few house concerts. “I used to have a nice apartment in Park Slope with a view of the twin towers, and we started doing house concerts. And that’s how 577 started. It was the address, 577 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn.” “It was really informal, sometimes there was nobody, sometimes there were a lot of people. We did it a few times and we liked it, and we started the label.” The first record on the label was an Ughi/Carter collaboration.
Jump forward 14 years, and things have quietly, in a home-grown way, developed. 2015 was an important year for them: Daniel Carter was turning 70, Federico was celebrating the birth of his first child, and Ornette Coleman, an inspiration to all of them, had died. “We decided to do something special.”
Jeff Snyder’s connection is maybe less historic, but is nonetheless born from the same excitement about seeing musician’s playing live, and wanting to see how a musical relationship could develop further. “At some point we met through a mutual friend, Leila Adu,” who was completing a PhD there. “She brought Federico to Princeton to play as part of a series of improvised performances called Live Stock Exchange. Snyder is based in Princeton, where he has been Director of Electronic Music for around a decade. After playing together, pretty quickly they realised they had a connection, too. “I liked his approach to improvisation,” enthused Snyder. “I play a modular synthesizer a lot, which is in some ways a difficult instrument to improvise with. I do a lot or re-patching and changing my configuration as part of my performance, and it fits really well with the way Federico listens and responds.”
|Federico Ughi anf Jeff Snyder
Photo: 577 Records
What was so interesting about speaking to Snyder and Ughi was hearing how they collaborate, playing very different instruments coming from different musical stalls (Ughi calls on a punk background, Snyder more rock, and both have spent time playing with Carter’s classical and free jazz approach). However the challenge for Snyder was often finding someone who could be flexible when improvising with an instrument which comes with a different history and playing style to traditional acoustic ones. “With my instrument being electronics, people say well ‘what is that?’. And over the years that changes, from maybe a keyboard to, in recent years, modular synthesis.”
It’s worth noting that part of Snyder’s canon is his development of new electronic instruments, and how players interact with them. “I feel generally there is a problem with expression in electronic music,” explains Snyder, “A traditional electronic interface gives you a very mediated connection to the sound, through technology. You don’t have the direct immediate control that you get with acoustic instruments. On a trumpet if you blow harder it’s louder; on an electronic instrument you don’t necessarily get a louder sound if you put more energy into the gesture. A lot of what I’ve been trying to work towards is a more expressive, dynamic way to make electronic sounds.”
This is in direct contrast to the enormous playing surface to interact with of the drums, where the speed, force, approach and tool have so much influence on the tone of the sound. And for me this is at the heart of Duo, Snyder and Ughi’s (unsurprisingly two person) collaboration. The tension between Snyder’s work to bring expression and improvisation to new electronic instruments, and Ughi’s willingness to accompany and build from that.
Snyder points out that this is not always a straightforward task, to jam along with electronics. “I do use sequencing sometimes, setting up a clock. One thing I love about working with Federico is his ability to internalise tempo streams, and yet go against them, or go alongside them with a different tempo of his own. He makes good choices about whether he’s with, opposing or complimenting.”
“I think I got it from William Parker,” pipes in Ughi, “I started playing with him maybe 15 years ago, and I’d never played with a bassist who was, not against me, but playing in a different way. Compatible, but different. Being on time in a different way.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” chimes Snyder. “I can establish clocks, pulse streams, but in a mediated way. It can be a real problem when playing with other musician’s – that tempo can’t respond to other people in the room and they always end up being a slave to it. It makes me avoid taking advantages of those possibilities, but I feel I can pull those out with Federico as he’ll find something to go with it that won’t be restricted by it. And I don’t feel like I have to keep it the same – I can speed up, slow down, introduce randomisation.”
* * *
Snyder has other challenges when coming to improvisation. “I play an instrument where there is no clear context; there’s no repertoire of music I should know how to play, there’s very little expectation. It’s associated with Electronic Dance Music, but that’s more solitary, focused on production in a studio. I’m much more interested in live performance, and in that case all bets are off. And I’m mostly an improviser because I have a very bad memory!”
This enthusiasm for unscripted live performance is what makes him so interesting to the jazz scene. Ughi called back to when they played together in a different format as part of his quartet, where Snyder came in to replace the role of the bass in a more recognisable Ornette-style group setup. “Jeff wasn’t playing the bass, but he was covering the bass role. And it was fantastic.”
“That’s true” chips in Snyder “but that was a real stretch for me. The band was already formed with a bass, and I came in without jazz training. And there were a lot of times when I wished that I could just walk on changes, but I didn’t know what I was doing. But it meant I brought an energy that was really different, and it was such an enjoyable group.” Along with Richard Teitelbaum, Snyder has been one of the pioneers in his keenness to cross-over between electronics and jazz into new and interesting places.
A lot of this comes from Snyder’s curiosity in trying to find a repertoire in electronic performance and composition (his solo record Concerning the Nature of Things is an excellent place to look for this in a number of different combinations and using newly minted instruments), but also his role at Princeton. Director of Electronic Music is a fairly unusual position, which seems to have been created just for Snyder, and sits equivalent to director of jazz, choir or orchestra. He straddles composition and performance; teaching and research. “I’m really happy that Princeton has considered it as a performance thing instead of studio music. I lead the laptop orchestra (PLOrk) which is an academic experiment in trying to make live electronic music in large groups. Usually electronic music is solitary in the studio, but even on stage it might be two people. You never see 10 people, and there are a lot of reasons for that! There are a lot of things that make it difficult. But I think it’s an exciting idea.” Snyder’s role is fundamentally to tease out how live large-scale electronic performances can happen, and each year gets to reform it building on the people and interests that he has available, the work he is doing on inventing new expressive electronic instruments, and a nascent new repertoire. It sounds amazingly liberating, and an excellent environment to experiment in. Many of his new projects start with his graduate composition students. “There are a lot of interesting deadlines, and it gives me nice creative restrictions to work with. I end up workshopping a lot of the pieces I write with them. The same with new instruments I’m developing.”
THE FORWARD FESTIVAL, 6 and 7 DECEMBER
The pressing matter, however, is the Forward Festival next week in Brooklyn. And I really wanted to know why this project was so exciting for both of them. “One of the goals of 577 records and the festival is to involve electronic music in the improvisation dimension. There are a lot of free jazz festivals, but electronic music is still considered something not legit, very separate to traditional acoustic free jazz. We would like to change this, to try and narrow the gap. Most of the music we hear is electronics. It is almost our connection to the future. Acoustic free jazz has such a history and its beautiful and it needs to be respected. I play the most acoustic instrument in the band, but I feel like you can’t create an experimental improvisation festival in 2018 without electronic music being represented.”
It is an opportunity to tie so many of their passions together; acoustic traditions and mixing genres, band setup, improvisation and structure. Ughi described this further “Every group has a different history, and each project is based on relationships between musicians. Each band develops its own personality, and from there you can create projects.” These form organically, and aren’t defined from the outset. One group featuring at the festival which did come with an initially defined philosophy is the Listening Group featuring Ughi, Snyder and Carter as part of a nine-person ensemble. As someone coming with experience of large electronic ensembles, Snyder was enthused. “It’s an interesting example. Having a band that big playing free, not composed music, is pretty risky and difficult to not make it a mess. The concept behind it came out of a Daniel Carter idea, to make chamber music where the real focus is on listening to each other.” Ughi was able to explain further “The night I met Daniel he was playing in a large ensemble, and he was a little frustrated because he felt it was all about playing louder and louder; it was like a competition. Can you imagine a group with the opposite? That’s the idea of the group. Instead of trying to play above everybody else, you try to play below. The elements in the band need to be aware of the other members. If you can’t hear someone else, you’re playing too loud. You have to be extremely careful.”
Most importantly, they’re both excited to gather and see some great combos and play with all their friends at the festival. It’s a little like a celebration, a family reunion, and their own version of Christmas and to celebrate in a concentrated event together.And it’s also an opportunity to hear and see people who they don’t always get to, with players coming from England and Denmark as well as the metro area.
Like all good things, the Forward Festival started as a one-off for a special occasion with no longterm ambitions, and from there stuck. And aren’t we glad!
The Forward Festival takes place at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, Brooklyn on Thursday 6th and Friday 7th of December. Jeff Snyder and Federico Ughi are opening the festival with a trio, accompanied by another electronic performer, the impeccably tasteful Cenk Ergün. The Listening Group finish the Thursday night session. Daniel Carter and Federico Ughi appear three more times over the two evenings in different projects and combinations.