|The Wire 255, May 2005
Unedited transcript by Julian Cowley
|Growing up in Philadelphia I studied piano with Bernard Peiffer, a classically-trained French jazz pianist who probably
had more influence on me than any other teacher. Bernard made few distinctions between genre, and always
emphasized personal interpretation and finding one's own voice. He told me "If you're going to play the wrong notes,
play them in the right way!", which taught me to always play with conviction, and to never shy away from those wrong
notes... I went on to study piano with Alexander Fiorillo (a Horowitz protégé), and to study composition at North
Texas State University and the University of Southern California. These educational experiences gave me a solid
background in performance and compositional skills, and more importantly, a good foundation to rebel against. It also
landed me in Los Angeles in the 1980s, in the middle of an exploding punk scene that had an ever-growing number of
clubs and venues for live music. I played in bands and free improvisation ensembles in the local punk clubs, art
spaces, vegetarian restaurants and public parks. There was a very strong spirit of defiance that taught me to always
write exactly what I want and to not fear rejection. Performing was often a trial by fire situation, and it gave me a thick
skin and prepared me for less than perfect situations later in my career. Playing in so many different kinds of venues
under all kinds of circumstances taught me about music, life, and how to deal with having things thrown at you by
strangers... I learned a great deal about working with different musicians' strengths and weaknesses in these band
situations, and I try to maintain that same collaborative spirit now when writing for others.
I moved to New York in the early 90's, and played at the old Knitting Factory, CBGB's gallery, amica bunker (and later
at Tonic, Roulette, Experimental Intermedia, among other places). I knew many of the musicians in that scene and
had played with many of them, so a move back to the East Coast was a kind of homecoming for me. The scene was
flourishing, and everyone was eager to experiment, collaborate and try lots of new projects. It was a great time to
develop skills as a composer, improviser and bandleader, and work on all of the gray areas in between. John Zorn
invited me to participate in his "Radical New Jewish Culture" festivals at the Knitting Factory, which provided a perfect
outlet to write music for my own band. "The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory", a piece dedicated to my grandmother, was
written for a performance by my band at one of the festivals in 1995, and was later performed by the Bang on a Can
Allstars. Funny how the same piece, when translated into notated form, made the trip uptown from the Knitting
Factory to Lincoln Center. This put me on the road to balancing a life of performing with my own group with writing
notated works for ensembles and soloists. Improvisational techniques crept into my notated work, and more
ambitious structures crept into my less notated pieces for my own band. My CD "Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery"
is a perfect example of this dual compositional existence: one piece, "EWA7", is written for my band and features a lot
of improvised and loosely structured sections, and the other piece, "Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery" is written for
string quartet and percussion quartet, and is 100 percent notated. They are both inspired by my residency in the
factories of Nuremberg, Germany, but use two very different languages to express common musical ideas.
The Tzadik label has been critical in providing an outlet for my music without arbitrarily dividing the work into
"classical" and "electric" (my own band). Each of my 3 CDs have had a balance of electronic, electric, and acoustic
elements, ranging from loosely structured music to fully notated compositions. They have each been diverse
instrumentally, but unified in their approach. John Zorn has created a great label that has raised the bar on treating
artists fairly. I can't believe the exploitive deals that so many "new music" labels get away with, and I'm horrified by
the recent commodification of "downtown" music. but Zorn has proven that it is possible to run a label with integrity
that is truly artist-oriented.
I've always been captivated by sounds that aren't considered music. Any barrier between music and noise has always
seemed artificial to me. Incorporating these sounds in my music is as natural as choosing a pitch set or creating a
rhythmic figure. It simply means working with a broader palette of sounds and a deeper pool of influences.
Many of my compositions explore the inherent beauty of non-musical sounds and are inspired by such diverse sources
as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 records, and detuned radios. There was such a variety of music in the
house when I grew up it opened my ears to non-musical sound as well, and as a child I enjoyed listening the television
tuned between channels, cars driving by, and creaking floorboards in the same way I enjoyed music.
The same fascination with sound inspired me to create "Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites", which is essentially a
duet for violin and recorded satellites. At first I was simply drawn to the beauty and mystery of the satellite sounds,
but as I did more research into the history of Sputnik, I learned that listening to Sputnik and watching it pass overhead
was a nightly event for people all over the world. I was struck by the image of single individuals dotted all over the
globe, watching the skies and listening with rapt attention to the most abstract, far away, beautiful signals. Tuning in
to the signals required a lot of equipment and a clear night sky in an isolated area. I imagined each person's intimate
relationship with this basketball-sized spinning hunk of metal, and considered how differently each listener might have
interpreted the mysterious blips and beeps from space. I'm hoping that each violinist who plays the piece will also
interpret the signals in his or her own way, and identify different timbres and concealed melodies embedded in the
In 1999 I spent six weeks in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, participating in a project funded by the Siemens
Corporation to combine art and industry. I spent a good deal of time in many different factories, recording and
observing industrial sound. Most of the workers were puzzled why anyone would want to listen to sounds that they
generally considered a nuisance. I was recording sounds to use in "EWA7", a concert-length site-specific piece that I
presented in a factory at the end of my residency. The piece incorporates sampled machine sounds, percussion played
on factory metals, altered electric guitar, machine-inspired rhythms, ambient noise, and the recycled sounds of many
Every piece reflects some aspect of personal history, and is influenced by my environment, my current state of mind,
and the musicians performing the music. My initial inspiration for a composition is often generated by outside forces (a
satellite sound, a factory, a fragment of family history, or a cellist's unique dynamic energy) as opposed to a pitch set
or a preconceived structure or form. I've had the opportunity to write for some great musicians, and their personal
history can have a lot of influence on a piece as well. "The Harmony of the Body Machine", for example, was written for
Joan Jeanrenaud, who has amazing technique, immense personal style, and a couple of decades' of experience
developing extended techniques with some of the 20th century's best composers. It also has the stamp of the
factories of Nuremberg in the sound samples that accompany the cello, and the relaxed sense of time found in
California, where I wrote most of the piece. Not every piece has a link to a non-musical idea. "Wild Pitch" was
composed for Felix Fan (cello), David Cossin (percussion) and Andrew Russo (piano). After a year of writing only solo
works, it was a blast and an inspiration to write a freight-train trio onslaught for three young energetic guys. The
challenge in writing "Lightheaded and Heavyhearted" was to create a work that could be performed to its best
advantage by a more conventional string quartet (The Miami String Quartet in this case), yet remain true to my own
work. The piece definitely reflects my aesthetic, but it does so with fewer extended techniques and a little less noise.
It wasn't until after I finished the piece that I realized how much my own temporary experience with vertigo and the
accompanying emotional stress and strain were reflected in this more conventionally scored quartet. In order to
exploit Marco Cappelli's positively extraterrestrial right-hand technique, I wrote "Marked by a Hat" for his right hand
only. His very odd instrument has ten sympathetic strings, which I tuned microtonally, so that the piece can be played
solely on detuned open strings with the right hand.
Although it's very important for me to write for individual performers, my ultimate goal is to create the music that
best reflects my own artistic vision. I am striving for music that can be beautifully interpreted and performed by a
musician, I'm not striving to please a musician with what I've written.
I perform on keyboards and piano. I usually compose at the keyboard, but I emphasize idiomatic performance
techniques for individual instruments, and try to avoid the flat "she wrote it on piano" approach.
Piano has always loomed large for me, in both its real and virtual forms. Many of my pieces incorporate sampled piano
in order to access detuned and prepared piano sounds in a live situation. The sampler has also given me the
opportunity to slip between the keys and explore a world of strange tunings and layerings, and to imagine tunings of
decay that an instrument could attain after a life of service in a smoky barroom or barrelhouse. "The Manufacture of
Tangled Ivory" is a tangle of four layers of detuned piano, prepared piano, and the lone snap of a sustain pedal. "Burnt
Ivory and Loose Wires" features many pieces for ruined and altered piano sounds, but "Mentryville" (from "Lost Signals
and Drifting Satellites") is the first recording I've released in which I play an actual piano (as opposed to sampler or
sampled piano). Naturally it's prepared piano, and very few notes are played in the conventional manner.
I grew up listening to all kinds of piano music, and I've spent as much time with Fats Domino, Fats Waller, Monk, Jelly
Roll Morton, and Professor Longhair as I have with Cage and Beethoven.
I also made a video, titled "Shoot the Player Piano", which is written for and imaginary orchestra of aging mechanical
instruments, most of which are keyboard instruments. (Watch it here)
Composing and performing my own work provides the most direct transition from abstract idea to live performance. I
usually write just a bit beyond my own keyboard abilities, so I have to work hard and sweat it out when I perform my
own music. Working with a band is a fast process that involves making decisions on the spot, and generally leaves
more room for input from each of the players. I try to apply the same energy and dynamic relationships between
musicians in band projects to chamber works. I love the laboratory aspect of working with musicians in both
scenarios. Although there is much more time for me to develop and refine work in advance when I write traditionally
notated music, rehearsals can still have the same fast and dirty immediacy of working with a band. In both cases it's
a thrill to see a new work come to life, and sculpting the music in rehearsal can be the most exciting part of the
My experience as an Improviser has had a profound effect on my choices as a composer as well. It has forced me to
consider all musical possibilities, which has allowed me to a have much freer mindset when composing.
Writing for so many different kinds of musicians and situations has kept life interesting. I learn something from every
new piece, and every experience helps me bring a little more to the table for my next project. I love going on the road
and playing live, but I also love having a job that lets me stay home in my pajamas writing music.
One brother, Reuben Gosfield, aka Lucky Oceans, was the pedal steel guitarist and co-founder of western swing band
Asleep at the Wheel. My sister, Avery Gosfield, plays recorder and runs Lucidarium, a medieval music ensemble. My
late uncle Maurice Gosfield played Duane Doberman in the Phil Silvers show, "You'll Never Get Rich."
One of my grandfathers was a tailor, the other a scrap metal dealer. Eighty years later I wind up tailoring scrap metal
for my performances of "EWA7".
An article based on this interview appeared in The Wire 255, May 2005
© 2005 The Wire.