​On Leap of Faith: "Alien yet familiar, bizarre yet completely fascinating. Expanding, contracting, erupting, settling down, always as one force..." - Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG

On Metal Chaos Ensemble: "... ​using unique strategies to yield densely active and eerily surreal music, an incredible excursion through experimental improvisation."   - Squidco website staff

Evil Clown ​

September 2016 Karl Ackermann Interview of PEK

     (responses to written questions)
Research for his new AllAboutJazz Column

     on Evil Clown to be published in October 2016

KA:  Tell me a bit about where you’re from (looks like the west coast) and/or what events shaped your life.

PEK:  I was born in Sacramento CA in 1964, but two years after I was born our family moved to Chappaqua New York for 7 years.  We then moved back to California in the Bay Area where I lived until I moved to Boston in 1989 to attend the Berklee College of Music.  After Berklee, I stayed in town to continue playing with Glynis Lomon and the Boston improvisation scene generally.  There is a very detailed music bio page for me on the Evil Clown website.  

I played music starting at a very young age and played in elementary school, junior high school and high school.  I was pretty good, and I did take lessons on clarinet and piano during elementary school and saxophone starting in the 7th grade with a guy named Kurt Heisig, but I never really applied serious discipline to music during this period.  When I went to College at UC Davis for Mathematics in 1982, I stopped playing for a couple of years.  I was very good at math, but at that time, I was not particularly interested in the career paths available from that education.  After two years at Davis, I moved with a good friend to UC Santa Cruz to study philosophy.  When there, I encountered some skilled older musicians and started playing again in their rock band called Thieves, Villains and Scoundrels Union Local 12.  At that point I stopped attending college and became very focused on music, playing in several different rock bands and resuming my study with Heisig for 5 or 6 years before moving to Boston for Berklee.  My study at this point was highly focused and disciplined, unlike my approach to lessons during my early school days.

At Berklee, I quickly became involved with the excellent Boston Improvisation scene – Berklee itself is really not a good place to study free improvisation – they are way too square.  But I did study music theory and voice training and other things critical to a well-rounded musical education, and I did study performance with George Garzone. 

I spent about 12 years as a very active musician in the scene after that point, working at Tower Records after completing the 2 year Berklee program.  Tower was actually an excellent place to study music history and I accumulated several thousand CDs while there and listened to thousands more – my interests are very wide and I specialized in fairly unusual music including modern and post-modern classical (especially after 1950) and world music from all over, but with special attention to the far east where the music is structured very differently than typical in the west.  I also became very familiar with the history of free-jazz and post-modern jazz.

After 6 years at Tower, I was not making any real money and I decided to return to college at UMASS for a Computer Science degree intending to get a better class of day gig.  I then left Tower and started at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH), a consulting structural Engineering Firm, in a non-technical position while I completed the Computer Science curriculum.  After a year or so, the graphics guy who was there moved back to Kentucky with his family and I started doing SGH’s presentation graphics and some programming.  This turned quickly into a fairly heavy technical job requiring many hours of work per week beyond a mere 40 hour schedule.  Following a big concert in 2001 with Leap of Faith and George Garzone’s band, the Fringe, at MIT in Cambridge, I retired from regular music activity until 2015.  I don’t have a half-speed for music, if I do it, I’m all in, and the SGH workload simply would not allow that at the time.

This work for the engineers was and is intellectually very challenging and exciting in contrast to all of my earlier jobs which were not.  One of the main things I do is provide graphics support to Engineering Expert Witnesses in huge Construction Lawsuits.  This involves pretty deep understanding of both the technical Engineering issues and Construction Law in addition to running the graphics software.  Over time I grew this group to have a number of staff.  I have worked on lawsuits involving the Big Dig in Boston, the Washington Monument, the New York Subway system and literally hundreds of others.  These disputes are typically about huge sums of money – frequently tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions dollars or more.  For a long time, I did not especially miss making music.  For me, music making is essentially a cerebral, rather than visceral or emotional activity.  My favorite thing about playing music is the deep concentration state that you enter when playing with other skilled improvisers.  No other activity that I have ever engaged in requires such intense focus and concentration, although some aspects of my day job do require very heavy concentration and this did satisfy my needs for a long time.

During my long break, I did occasionally do some playing with various groups of Yuri Zbitnov, the drummer from the last formation of Leap of Faith.  I did several performances and tracks for an album by one of Yuri’s bands called Mission Creep in 2013 and 2014.  This got me back into playing again more regularly.  In early 2014, I happened to be working in New York City and I made time to go in person to Downtown Music Gallery (DMG) in Manhattan, an excellent store specializing in new music that I had been buying CDs from every week for years from their weekly newsletter.  I spoke with owner Bruce Lee Gallanter (who at that time knew me only as a frequent mail order customer) at some length about the early Leap of Faith period and the next week I sent him about 10 of the old CD titles…  Later in the year, when I checked in with him, he had sold the bulk of what I left with him.  By now, Bruce has reviewed and had sales of well over 20 of the titles from the Evil Clown Catalog.   This demonstration of public interest was the real trigger which led to the reformation of Leap of Faith and the birth of the current Evil Clown Project-Object (to borrow a term from Frank Zappa).

KA:  What were your early encounters with music, before you actually became a musician?

PEK:  I’m going to change this question slightly to “early encounters before I became a serious musician” since I became a musician at about age 9.  My father had a small record collection with a number of things that really spoke to me when I was very young.  I have strong early memories of early Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and Switched on Bach by Walter Carlos and another moog synthesizer album called Electric Hair Pieces (interpretations of songs from the musical, Hair).

In my teens I listened to rock from the 60s like the Beatles and progressive rock from bands like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and King Crimson.  I also listened to some main stream jazz and classical music.  In my late teens I discovered Frank Zappa.  I still enjoy all of this music today, although I do not listen to it very often.

In my senior year of high school (1982), I have a vivid memory of hearing for the first time the album Tin Pan Alley by Jack DeJohnette.  Chico Freeman and John Surman play saxophones in a very free style with lots of altisimo register playing and multi-phonics on this album.  Although I had been playing saxophone maybe 6 years at this point, I did not realize that these kind of sounds were possible on my instrument.  Hearing these sounds eventually led me to read all the available literature I could find about free jazz, modern jazz and post-modern jazz history which in turn led me to Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  Art Ensemble of Chicago was particularly important to me since it established a precedent for very broad palates and woodwind multi-instrumentalism.  Roscoe Mitchel is clearly a primary influence for me.

During college, I took an advanced class in Aesthetics from the Philosophy department at UC Davis.  The course studied the question of what constitutes a work of Art.  We looked at a number of fringe artists like Duchamp and Cristo who pushed boundaries, along with Pop-culture artists like Andy Warhol and outrageous objects like the movie Pink Flamingos by John Waters.  At the end of the course, our grade was based on a paper we had to write evaluating a particular art object.  The professor gave me an album by John Cage with some of his cut-up tape splicing pieces on it.  I was to opine if this work was music or not.  This blew my mind.  Although I not certain now, 33 years later, which Cage composition it was (I no longer have this paper anywhere), it was probably Williams Mix or one of the pieces from that general period where the score is comprised of chance operations which determine how to select the next tape source and how to splice it to the work.  Even now, however, I clearly remember my argument in the paper.  I started by establishing elements that the music of my experience at that time is normally comprised of:  Melody, harmony, meter, harmonic motion, melodic/harmonic relationships, etc. and then compared the work I was examining to these criteria, determining that the Cage work contained none of these elements.  Despite the incredible weirdness of the music to me at that time, I concluded that the work was highly organized:  Art made of sound materials, but not music.  My answer would be very different now, but this was my first experience of truly radical thinking in the creation of music.  I can think of no other single experience anywhere in my formal education in any subject that has had such a lasting impression on my thinking in general and my Aesthetic in particular.

Shortly after this, I moved to Santa Cruz with my friend Jeff Mockus and my serious adult music study soon began.  

One final important influence occurred starting five or six years later:  Once in Boston, I began to listen to a lot more late period classical music – composers like Xenakis, Penderecki, Ligeti, Cage, Feldman, Lachenmann, and many other composers active from the 1950s to the present day.  This hypermodern-classical music is structured very differently than the melodic harmonic relationships of previous western music and is largely textural in character.  In many ways my mature improvisational language owes more to this music than any jazz influences.  

KA:  How did the founding of Evil Clown Records come about?

PEK:  I’m going to lump this together with the next question.

KA:  You and cellist Glynis Lomon have been the core of Leap of Faith since its inception.  She has a rich improvisational history, having worked with creative music leaders such as Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and William Parker.  You had also worked with Parker as well as George Garzone and Raphe Malik.  How did you and Lomon come together and was the initial shaping of Leap of Faith a joint effort? 

PEK:  There is a very detailed band bio on the website and also a pretty detailed bio of Glynis on the site there are bios for most of the people who have contributed to Evil Clown on the site. ithin several months of arriving in Boston, I went to see a performance in Cambridge by a trio of Joe Maneri, Mat Maneri and Masashi Harada.  Masashi is a gifted percussionist, piano player and artist in several other media who was using a color/texture oriented percussion concept very different from the usual approach to drum set even among free-jazz drummers.  Masashi had performed with Cecil Taylor in Berlin the year before and was very well connected in the world of improvisation.  I introduced myself to Masashi and over the next several years we did an enormous amount of work together.

One of the concerts we did was at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory.  The piece was Burning Poles composed by Cecil Taylor and the large ensemble included Raphe Malik and Glenn Spearman who had both played a lot with Cecil as well as Glynis and a number of other mature improvisers from the Boston scene.  I had the opportunity to do several other projects with Raphe after that performance.  Cecil was in attendance at this performance and I got to meet him which was a real thrill.

Another of our bands was a quartet with George Garzone and an excellent microtonal trumpet player named John Fugarino.  This band had a handful of performances including a recital at Berklee called Emerging from the Swamp as I was completing the curriculum.

Masashi’s primary project was the Masashi Harada Sextet where Masashi played piano.  Glynis and I were both regular members of this ensemble along with the amazing drummer Lawrence Cooke who is on several seminal Bill Dixon records and John Fugarino.  One of the performances of this band included William Parker as a guest.  This was a great performance – I especially remember an extended duet between Glynis and William that was extraordinary.  I do have recordings of a lot of the music I played with Masashi during this period on cassette – I have not released any of it on Evil Clown since I don’t have the masters; and since he was the leader, it’s not up to me to make this music public anyway.  Although Masashi has released a number of albums over the years, unfortunately, nothing has been released by this sextet.

To a very large degree, my mature improvisational language was developed during this first period of playing with established improvisers.  Glynis, especially, was very important to me and I developed a lot of technique specifically as a response to her musical language.  For example, glissando which is a natural technique on cello, but an extended technique on woodwinds.  In general, we learned how to mimic each other’s sounds and this was an important element in the sextet.

When this band and my musical relationship with Masashi ended a few years later, Glynis and I recognized the deep musical connection we had formed and began our collaboration as co-leaders in earnest.  Our first band, starting in 1992 or maybe 1993, was called Leaping Water Trio and was comprised of the two of us with another saxophone player.  That band went on for a couple of years and then we formed the first group called Leap of Faith in 1995.  Leap of Faith was always a collaboration between Glynis and myself that underwent several transitions over the next 6 or 7 years.  The first several versions included Mark McGrain on trombone, Sydney Smart on drums and Craig Schildhauer on bass in various combinations and sometimes all at once.  We also played with a number of different guests.

For years, we had an on-going series of frequent performances at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge.  We would usually play with another band in a two bands play three sets format:  One each and then one together.  We played with a lot of great improvisers there including such notables as Tatsuya Nakatani, Taylor Ho Bynum, B’hob Rainey, Eric Rosenthal, Curt Newton and others.  I recorded everything.  I had a DAT machine, a small mixing board and a reasonable stereo microphone and got much better recordings of these shows than was typical at the time of other improvisation ensembles.  This was also the very beginning of the availability of CD burners for home computers and I started to produce limited runs of homemade CDs primarily to sell at performances.

Eventually Mark McGrain moved to New Orleans, and Craig Schildhauer moved to Hawaii.  In 1999, Glynis and I formed the next version of Leap of Faith with the drummer Yuri Zbitnoff (who uses the nom-de-clown Yuri Zbitnov in Evil Clown projects) who we both knew from playing with Raqib Hassan (a brilliant under-rated tenor sax player and composer who sadly passed a few years ago).  A frequent contributor to this iteration of Leap of Faith was the gifted theremin specialist James Coleman.  We did a bunch of performances and recording sessions preparing for what would end up being the final event in the early Leap of Faith period – a concert with my old Berklee pal George Garzone and his band the Fringe.  We used the old Zeitgeist template where the Fringe played a set, Leap of Faith played a set and both groups played together.  Although the combined set was well recorded (and in my humble opinion, extraordinary), I have never been able to release it due to George’s contractual obligations.

OK, now finally to the birth of Evil Clown.  My early homemade releases really did not carry a label name on the packaging.  In early 2001, during a trio recording session at Yuri’s home in Jamaica Plain, a long improvisation ended with some vaguely circus sounding music.  At the conclusion of the piece, I said out loud on the tape, “The Fucked-Up Circus Comes to Town”.  As I usually do, I named the album after that contemporaneous off-the-cuff comment.  With a title like that I needed an image for the cover of the album different from my usual abstract fractal.  My housemate, Raffi Batalian, happened to be a painter who had studied at Mass Art.  He and I conceptualized the original sparkles painting which he executed and we used as the cover of that album.  Raffi’s excellent digital painting shows a giant clown juggling elephants and other large circus objects as he stampedes through the circus creating havoc in his wake.  Raffi has made a couple of excellent newer Sparkles paintings in the current period.

For me, Sparkles rapidly became a symbol for me of Chaos (not in the usual pop-culture sense, but in the scientific sense of Chaos Theory), which is a very important concept for me as a defining structural element of our music (see below).  Shortly thereafter I started to call the previously unnamed label for homemade Leap of Faith recordings Evil Clown.  Sparkles and Evil Clown are readily accessible symbols of Chaos to many people, in a way that the mathematical ideas of Chaos Theory are not.  In addition, Sparkles is very memorable and makes an excellent icon for the Evil Clown brand.

After my long break, when it became clear to me that I was going to be active again musically, I made the decision to mine all of the recordings from my DAT tapes of the early period that were releasable from both a quality and permissions point of view and create CD and download versions to market through Bandcamp and DMG so that we could demonstrate our credentials as we started to produce new music.  Not only did I create many new Leap of Faith albums, but I also made albums from many of the other projects from that period.  I spent 3 or 4 months preparing these albums in late 2014 before the first new Evil Clown activity started in January 2015.  So the scope of Evil Clown really is all of the various projects I organized or led over the years (after 1992) along with some projects of others that I participated in that I had good masters for and the permission of that project's leader.  Currently there are about 150 titles on Evil Clown.  The best way to see the range of all of these projects is to look at the Evil Clown Catalog, available on pdf here.   As of this writing, it’s a few months out of date, so the last 5 or 6 releases are not included in this document.  The catalog contains the front cover and notes images and concisely lists the players, dates and locations for each release by band.

KA:  It isn’t unusual for musicians to wear two career hats in a challenging music business environment.  While many artists stay close to the music through teaching, producing or engineering others have a more diverse alter-ego.  In your case, you are a Senior Graphics Specialist at a major engineering firm, and so, an artist in that respect as well.  Do you see an interaction between those two disciplines?

PEK:  I have learned a lot of things in my career at SGH which have enormous value to me in running Evil Clown.  Advanced computer skills are very useful for the many things that you need to do:  Packaging design, audio and video editing, webpage maintenance, social media, web marketing, etc.   Also very important are business skills like scheduling and clear verbal and written communication with other musicians, venues, reviewers, etc.  Programming and Photoshop skills have aided my newer Fractal Artwork discussed below.

The above things are mostly not art/music making activities, but are critical skills in gaining brand recognition.  Since the break started in 2001, the whole landscape of music marketing has completely changed with the maturing of the internet and computer skills are required to run any enterprise. 

I do see a connection between the kind of serious concentration required in improvisation and what is often required in my day job.

In addition, it is extraordinarily difficult to even make a living wage from a music career – especially in an Avant-garde style.  Having the solid income from a serious technical job has made it possible to fund Evil Clown’s purchases of the enormous amount of musical and technical equipment that we need to create broad palette improvisation and get it into the hands of people who wish to experience it.  So in that sense, the current direction and approach of the Evil Clown Aesthetic would not be possible without SGH.  It is my goal that eventually our music will be well enough known to generate enough album sales and audience at performance to pay for itself.

KA:  Improvisation is often seen as enabling direct intercession in social and political dialogues, and opening new avenues of expression.  In some ways, Leap of Faith seems to open its music to technological paths, both high and low tech variations.  Is that a theory that you subscribe to? 

PEK:  I am not a particularly political person, so my own artistic expression is not intended to express any particular political viewpoint.  I do know that some members of the overall project do consider their artistic expression to have a political component.

I am very interested, however, in new avenues of expression.  What I express with those new avenues is typically abstraction and does not contain or imply extra-musical meaning.  I will discuss this in more detail in response to some of the later questions in this document. 

We are open to any sound producing means to create the sounds used in our improvisations.  I have acquired a fair amount of newer technological electronic tools for extending the boundaries of our expression.  I will discuss this further in the next section where I respond to the next three questions.

KA:  The improvisation ensemble under the umbrella of Leap of Faith, has been around since the 1990s but with a significant break in activity, reforming in 2015.  Had the creative philosophy changed from the break to the reformation?

PEK:  I’m going to lump my responses to this question and the next two together.

KA:  You use a large number of unconventional instruments (or tools) in creating your music.  Those kinds of additions tend to be less random than they seem on paper.  How structured is your use of instruments like the bass tromboon, daxophone, sheng, wood or metal?

KA:  Your music is described as “pure improvisation” but structures seem to materialize and dissipate over the course of many of your extended pieces, indicating some balance between freeform and composed.  Is this a misconception on my part or are there pre-written parts holding these pieces together?

PEK:  My creative philosophy has not changed, but I am applying a much larger set of tools to the same basic set of Aesthetic concerns.  This lengthy section of my responses to your three theory related questions will, I hope, demonstrate why I say this even while the music is generally fairly different now in character compared to the early period.

I do not like many of the terms used to describe new music in its various genres as descriptors for our music, although I do use those terms in search engines because of their history and therefore potential connection to listeners.  I don’t like “experimental” because we are really not experimenting.  Even when we are in unfamiliar sonic territory (i.e. unusual instruments or new combinations of players) we are employing a specific established methodology. 

I don’t like “Free Jazz” because we have few references to jazz in our musical language, although contemporary improvisation has evolved partially from the historical school called Free Jazz.  Some of the players in the extended Evil Clown family do have stronger jazz backgrounds than others and so in some of the configurations the jazz element is stronger, but even in those cases, the central concepts are not being driven by any jazz point of view or jazz structures. 

I don’t like “free improvisation” because this description implies that the music has no structure.  Implied in this term is the idea that you just “do whatever you want” and there are no rules governing the musician’s decision making process – in effect, that the music is random.  Although we can just do whatever we want, there is a lot of information we use to guide our decisions and the results are not random, they are chaotic (more on this below).  Chaos and Randomness are very different in the world of mathematics and in my Aesthetic.

As a general description, I’m OK generally with the term “Avant-Garde” which means new and unusual ideas.  However, in music this term is applied generally to music created in the 60s and 70s as a genre school title.  While that music is important to me and the recent development of collective improvisation, that school originates over 50 years ago and the music we are making now is fundamentally different.  Also, it seems weird to be using a 50 year old title which means “new”.

As a general description, I’m generally OK with the term “collective improvisation”, which is an accurate description of our methods.  However, collective improvisation also occurs in many different more traditional styles of music dating back to Dixieland and even before in the folk styles of various cultures. 

A long time ago, I came up with the term “pure improvisation” to answer my above concerns with the standard nomenclature.  It means that there is little or no advance planning in our approach (with some exceptions to be discussed later). 

In the discussion above, I mention that Sparkles the Giant Evil Clown is a symbol for me of Chaos in the sense of the dynamical Chaos of complex systems described by Chaos Theory.  Chaos Theory is a very modern branch of mathematics that only really arose in the 1980s with the emerging maturity of computers in the sciences.  Complex systems like the weather or the economy are Chaotic – meaning unpredictable.  Even though the behavior of the overall system is completely and precisely determined by its input, the enormous number of discrete inputs and the complexity of their interaction with each other means that precise prediction of the future behavior of the system is impossible.  You simply cannot measure the inputs with enough precision to create a model that will be accurate over any extended period of time.   This does not mean that we cannot have meaningful descriptions of the system as a whole:  For example, in the weather, we could have thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, cloudy, clear, windy, light breeze, hot, humid, etc.  Weather scientists have been working on improving prediction for a very long time, and the ideas of Chaos Theory have improved their ability to predict short term weather events, but it is still very difficult to predict with real accuracy more than a week or so in advance.  Another analogy one could use to imagine our concept is Friedrich Hayek's description of the behavior of markets. Individuals engage in voluntary transactions each day, but despite the unpredictable nature of these transactions, a spontaneous order emerges.

Our music works in a similar fashion.  We have rejected all of the elements I used in my 1983 Aesthetics class as being necessary for music:  Melody, harmony, metric time, harmonic motion, etc.  These conventional and historic structures are replaced by Sonorities.  “Sonority” is a music theory term used to describe the overall sound of complex harmonic structures which are outside of conventional harmonic systems.  I, and many other musicians, extend the meaning of the term to be the overall collective sound of all of the musical elements present. 

At Evil Clown, individual performers use their own experiences as a decision making guide to contribute sounds to the sonority of the ensemble.  A large number of factors contribute to the sonority at any given time many of which fall into a range or continuum of options:  For example, imitation vs. contrast, consonance vs. dissonance, sparsity vs. density, static vs. aggressive, loud vs. quiet, small interval motion vs. large interval motion, complex vs. simple, pure tone vs. noise, smooth vs. angular, clean vs. dirty, low register vs. high register, continuous vs. intermittent, fast vs. slow, playing vs. laying out, instrument changes, timbre set changes, etc.  This is a partial list of the possibilities.

A particular sonority can pretty easily carry an English language description and be a repeatable event as a system (like hurricane is in the weather) without any of the actual specific detail being repeated.  For example, from the quartet Leap of Faith sessions from the last year or so with Steve Norton and myself, Steve and myself both playing slow moving close interval lines on low clarinets with disjointed more aggressive cello and percussion.  This sonority, or one very like it, occurs in a number of our improvisations from this period.

As an improvisation progresses, sonorities are established from the combination of the individual inputs (the decisions of each contributing performer).  Transformation to a different sonority can arise in a number of different ways:  When a phrasing node occurs where the phrases of the ensemble collectively come to a conclusion at the same moment, one or more players can make a dramatic change in their input – for example, an instrument change or a move from one end of a choice continuum to the other (from sparse to dense).  If a player is laying out, a frequent strategy is to wait for one of these nodes to appear from the players who are playing and make your entrance at this node.  Players can abruptly change their input decisions, for example a sudden move from static to aggressive or from imitation to contrast.  Players can gradually change their input decisions – for example the sonority can be accelerating gradually getting louder and faster.  A complete enumeration of all of the possibilities here is impossible since the options during a particular session depend on the combination of players and instrumental resources available at that moment.

So, the structure of our music is a sequence of sonorities arrived at through the independent decision making of the involved performers.  As the players gain more experience with each other they have more information to draw on regarding the pool of achievable sonorities within the current context and their decisions benefit from this knowledge. 

In your question you say “structures seem to materialize and dissipate over the course of many of your extended pieces, indicating some balance between freeform and composed.”   Our goal is to create transformations over time across sonorities using the above described methodology.  If an observer feels that the structures are planned in advance, it is a good sign that the improvisation is meeting that goal.  In Chaos Theory the global structure apparent to an observer arising from complex interactions of many discrete inputs is called an Emergent Property. 

For many years, I have thought a great deal about how to articulate the theory underlying our music:  The form (structure) of a piece is an Emergent Property of the collective decisions and actions taken by the players over the course of the improvisation.  There is clear development through the length of an improvisation if we are successful.  This is why I do not like the term “free improvisation” and its implication that there is no structure in the music.  Just because the structure is not established in advance and does not follow the conventions of traditional musical practice, does not mean that the structure does not exist.  The structure is Emergent.

A long time ago, I started describing our music as pure improvisation.  I recently have started also referring to it as broad palate improvisation.  If the goal is to achieve development through transformation across distinct and varied sonorities, an obvious strategy is to radically increase the variety of the sound materials.  Introduction into the Evil Clown Arsenal (what I call the pool of available instruments) of unconventional instruments and sounds broadens our ability to move a particular improvisation through very different sonorities.  The amount of variety within a given work is greater, therefore the development within the work is greater, and therefore the structure is more apparent to the observer. 

When I came to Boston originally, I brought with me the four common saxophones, clarinet and flute.  As I became active in the improvisation scene I found I wanted to focus mostly on different lower-register instruments, since the overtone series and altisimo register technique allow high sounds to be played as overtones of low fundamentals.  At the time, I could not afford to just buy new instruments, so instead, I traded away the higher saxophones and my second tenor, eventually settling on 6 horns:  Tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and bassoon.  I used this group of instruments along with a few various small instruments and sound making devices for the balance of the early period.

After a while, I started to think of these instruments as belonging to 3 different timbre sets or groups of instruments sharing the same timbre in different registers – clarinets, saxophones and double reeds.  This is a much more important distinction to me between the different instruments than fingering systems and differences in embrouchure.  The ability to shift to a different timbre set within an improvisation is a powerful tool in making dramatic change to the current sonority, shaping the development of the work.  Even more so, when several players can do it.

When I came back to music following the break I decided that I was going to reinvent myself by extending my personal Arsenal to include all of the common chromatic orchestral members of the three timbre sets I had played in the early period.  I now have 5 saxophones, 6 clarinets, and 6 double reeds and a number of open hole (non-chromatic) folk instruments from each of these timbre sets – low, middle and high register instruments in each group.  I also added unusual wind instruments not found in a western orchestra like the dulzaina, tromboon and the sheng. 

I also decided that I wanted to increase the timbre sets available to other players besides myself.  I added pitched and unpitched metal and wood percussion instruments, large drums like daiko and the Indian festival drum, string instruments like guzheng and yanqin, game calls, whistles and sirens, aquasonic (a bowed metal instrument that Glynis had used for years), unusual electronic instruments like daxophone, theremin, the ms-20 synth, [d]ronins, digital signal processing equipment, and a music sequencer and digital audio workstation software called Abelton Live.  In most Evil Clown sets, sub sets of this group of instruments is set up at common stations where they are available to all of the performers.   This gives all players at a particular session the option to shift timbre sets increasing the range of possible sonorities.

In the conventional sense, my use of instruments like tromboon, sheng, daxophone, theremin, guzheng, etc. is unstructured.  It is naïve:  I have not performed a serious and disciplined prolonged study of these instruments in the way that I have with saxophones and clarinets.  To me, all instruments are feedback machines:  I give the instrument input and I observe what sounds result (output).  Over time, I develop more and more knowledge of the result I will achieve from the input I provide, but I get meaningful feedback from the instrument immediately. 

I will use an instrument or any sound producing object in an improvisation even when I have very little experience with it – I just use it briefly to produce sounds that I have established and then I change instruments.  I use the Sheng, for example, in a way that is entirely disconnected from the ancient history of this instrument and any general practice applied to it within the Chinese culture.  Despite the fact that it was initially totally foreign, I started to use it immediately when I got it, and now 8 or 9 months later I use it for longer durations within a piece and I have a much broader vocabulary.  In the Chaotic sense, the use of these unconventional instruments and the sounds that I make with them is very structured:  they broaden the development of the work by helping to make the transformations across the Emergent sonorities more distinctive. 

The various ensembles which make up the current Evil Clown roster really are more about subsets of the overall sound possibilities of the Arsenal than they are about a particular fixed group of musicians.  Except the core Leap of Faith ensemble (currently myself, Glynis and Yuri with Andria Nicodemou on vibes when she is available), none of these groupings are really bands as people generally think of them - instead, they focus on a section of the overall orchestra and often have different performers from session to session.  The groups are:

  • Leap of Faith – Primarily horns, strings and percussion.  But open to broader instrumentation and constantly varying its size and personnel with different guests added to the core ensemble.
  • Metal Chaos Ensemble – Chaotic rhythms on metal percussion instruments with my horns.  When I started up in 2015, the first new instruments I acquired were gongs, bells, Tibetan bowls, etc.  My original intent was to provide orchestral color to the percussion in Leap of Faith, but when Yuri and I did the very first set MCE as a duet, it was immediately obvious that this was also a separate project.
  • String Theory – Orchestral strings and my horns.  In the 90s period, Glynis and I did some Leap of Faith sets with other string players – string quartet plus myself.  I wanted to update this concept.
  • Turbulence – Primarily horns.  A couple of these sets also include Yuri on the drum set. 
  • Mekaniks – Greater use of electronic instruments, sampling, loops etc.  The newest Evil Clown ensemble.
  • Leap of Faith Orchestra – The large ensemble comprised of all of the smaller ones.  When any two or more of the above play together or the ensemble reaches a size of 7 or 8 I call it LOFO.  When all of the groups play together, I call it the Full Orchestra.  For the full LOFO I prepare a score which controls when people play with time indices and gives them English language descriptions of the sonority I want to achieve.  This is the only Evil Clown setting where there really is pre-planned structure for an improvisation.  As ensemble size increases, achieving transformations across sonorities and development readily apparent to the observer becomes more difficult without planning.  I use directions that are simple enough such that no rehearsal is required.  I still consider these composed works pure improvisation even though there are planned events because I am merely applying constraint to the decision making processes that the players make when no score is present.  There is still no melodic, harmonic or rhythmic information specified.  Below are links to the scores I have prepared for large format improvisations.

  • Expansions uses the same basic formal device called Frame Notation (to specify events according to a time index on a common clock) as the newer scores.  It, however, has a great deal of additional more specific notation and required a lot of rehearsal to achieve.  I spent two years of my life on this composition.  My approach to the new scores is much less specific to emphasize the pure improvisation elements and eliminate the need for rehearsal which would be very difficult to achieve.  They also take much less time to prepare.

Now I can finally fully address the question of has there been a change in philosophy from the early period to the current period.  The simple answer is no.  What has changed is implementation and resources.  The idea of Chaotic (unpredictable) transformational development as a sequence of Emergent Sonorities across the duration of an improvisation existed during the early period and is completely unchanged today.

I truly believe that the overall Evil Clown Project-Object creates music which is unique, covering a lot of territory not covered by any other music being made by others.  We are creating broad palate pure improvisations at the nexus of free improvisation, modern jazz, modern classical and noise.  In my promotion of our music which occurs primarily on Facebook, I target groups in each of these disparate genre categories and receive favorable responses from all of them.

KA:  It appears that you worked in multi-media at times in the past.  Is that something you still do with Leap of faith performances?

PEK:  We did a lot of multi-media work in the past.  We worked with dancers.  We did a lot of performances with an action painter named Guadulesa who would execute a painting during the musical performance.  We used projection of fractals and computer generated animations of various kinds.  Sometimes we did these things together.

So far, we have not presented multi-media works in the current period.  This is due to several factors:  We are already bringing a lot of equipment to every gig to support the broad palate improvisation concept.  Available time for set up is generally consumed by the instruments and recording equipment.  Space is limited in the venues we have been presenting in.

The next full Leap of Faith Orchestra show on 11/19/2016 will be in a large space.  I am currently seeking dancers to participate in that performance, and if I find appropriate artists in time will include them. 

KA:  One bonus of the Evil Clown CDs is the unusual, somewhat psychedelic cover and disc art.  You worked for some time with mathematically generated images call fractals.  Is the CD artwork an extension of that interest?

PEK:  Simple answer to this question is yes.  The CD artwork is all Fractal Art.  In the 90s, I made fractals with a program called Fractint with a partner named Martha Ritchey.  We did it for 3 years or so and generated a library of about 5,000 images.  At the time, I used those images for album covers, promotional materials and video used in performance for projection. 
Martha and I made several compositions, in fact, that I called Videographic Scores from the fractals and some other computer graphic environments.  These scores were essentially density maps where slower motion or faster motion gave the ensemble information to guide the improvisation.  These pieces were performed a bunch of times by Leap of Faith and various other ensembles.

When I worked my way through the back catalog and the early current period releases, I drew on the existing library of fractals for my source material for the cover art.  About 4 months ago or so, I realized that a new program called Ultrafract was out that solved key problems of Fractint from the 90s - namely:  low resolution (Fractint only rendered up to 640x480, Ultrafract will render at 2048x1536), color palate (Fractint would only use 16,000 colors), and a much more flexible coding environment for writing the mathematics.  All of my newest releases use fractals made very recently in Ultrafract.

I call the pieces Fractal Art instead of Fractals, because I post process the images in Adobe Photoshop with filters and other computer graphics knowledge acquired from being a daily Photoshop user for the last 17 years at SGH.

I consider the Fractal Art to be a critical component of the brand.  Evil Clown product is readily recognizable from the fractal covers.  In addition, though, fractals are objects of Chaos Theory and therefore make excellent symbols for the structure of the music.  This subtle distinction is lost, I’m sure, on most of the listeners, but even if the images are not understood to be Chaotic and merely recognized as complex and psychedelic, they are a good symbol for the structure of the music.

PEK:  Here’s a question you did not ask.  I’ll phrase the question as if I was you.  I see that you are releasing a huge number of albums.  What’s up with that?

PEK:  I am releasing about 25 or 30 albums per year.  Modern technology allows that.  I have excellent recording equipment.  I record everything digitally live-to-2 track with 4 high-end wide diaphragm condenser microphones and good microphone compressors.  I record the room sound, without close micing so there is no mix-down is required.  I generally spend less than an hour producing the final file that I produce CDs and download files from.  I have a CD duplication tower and CD surface printer in my home office and I produce the physical product within days of the recording event.  I make enough CDs of each release to give each participating musician 5 copies and have at least 50 left over for sales at shows, sales through Bandcamp or CD Baby, and press/promotion.

I’ve decided to do this for several reasons: 

  • The broad palate concept and the large number of different musicians and settings involved produce very different sounding results from event to event.  This is true even though the structure of the music works the exactly the same way every time.  We work with a large digital sports clock and each piece is designed to be a full CD in length.
  • Since it is possible to do it economically, I have decided to make the whole process as transparent as possible.  Fans of our music have many options for listening to our work, and those who are interested can see the entire process.  In fact, it turns out that more than half of my actual sales and downloads come from a few people who buy everything as soon as I publish it.
  • This is demanding music with a very limited total audience compared to popular music.  It is unlikely that I can attract thousands and thousands of listeners to buy a single album, so I’m looking to sell many different titles to the same individual in order to help achieve more meaningful volume and thus provide the opportunity of recovering my cost or perhaps even eventually making some money for me and the other players.
  • For many reasons, I ended up taking a very large break from an active musical life between 2001 and 2015.  I am now 52 years old and have missed out on a lot of time to make myself known to a larger audience.  A constant stream of new music enables me to promote on social media aggressively without constantly repeating myself and hopefully this will result in our music becoming better known.

I realize that this is a very unusual model, but the kind of music we are making and the way that it is being made allow it and there is a lot of interest for it on the web (if not a lot of sales).  We are already reaching a lot more people, all over the world, than we ever did in the early period.  I’m going to continue to pursue this model and see where it takes us.