BIG EARS 09: Ned Rothenberg

New York sax and clarinet master Ned Rothenberg considers how the way we listen to music affects the way it's made

A defining metaphor for the Big Ears Festival comes to mind while chatting via phone with New York City-based reedman Ned Rothenberg. Perhaps the Big Ears Festival's sensorium-blowing diversity, shoehorned as it is into a mere 50 hours, is the iPod generation's answer to a music festival—a live manifestation of shuffle mode, with classical, jazz, rock, category X, and category Y cheek-to-jowl.

Or as reedman Ned Rothenberg puts it, "I sit and listen to Beethoven string quartets front to back [on my iPod but] sometimes I'm just listening in random mode and a movement pops in and… I feel a little guilty thinking about Ludwig van, going, ‘You really want to listen to just the second movement of the C-sharp minor string quartet, and then go on to Otis Redding right after that?'"

As a matter of fact, yes, if current trends are any indication, that's apparently precisely what we want.

Rothenberg is a wide-ranging composer and performer, based in New York since the late 1970s but best known for solo performances in the United States, Europe, and Japan. At the core of his virtuosic clarinet and saxophone playing is an assortment of extended techniques, which include circular breathing, alternate horn fingerings, and overtone manipulation. These are brought to bear in solo performance to produce what he hesitatingly and unsatisfyingly characterizes as "full music."

"It's much more normal for guitarists or pianists to play alone because the instruments themselves have intrinsically more polyphonic capability," Rothenberg says. "What I'm trying to do, with the admittedly limited ways in which these instruments can create both polyphony and self-accompaniment, is to make a full musical statement with that."

Whether on alto saxophone or bass clarinet, solo performances invoke a rich auditory weave of braided melodies, floating descants, and percussive effects. On recordings it's easy to forget that all these sounds materialize from one instrument nearly simultaneously, but live or even on YouTube the effect is spellbinding, at times magical.

Rothenberg's oeuvre, however, is not confined to solo performance alone. Consistent with many in the free-improv scene, his activities incorporate extensive collaborations with a seemingly limitless array of partners. His philosophy—"If a musician is sensitive and has ears... I'm happy to listen to them or play with them"—has resulted in recordings and performances with such artists as English free-improv reedman Evan Parker, frame drummer Glen Velez, No Wave drummer/composer Ikue Mori, Sardinian "prepared" guitarist Paolo Angeli, and The Necks drummer Tony Buck and pianist Chris Abrahams. At Big Ears, Rothenberg will be performing solo, but also in collaboration with all three members of The Necks.

With Buck, he presently "instigates" Fell Clutch, described by Rothenberg on his website as a "kind of next-generation jam band" that also includes Stomu Takeishi on fretless bass and Dave Tronzo on electric slide guitar.

"I like to play in the rhythm section and use the horns to help generate a rhythmic fabric as opposed to always being playing melodic lines over the top," he says. That motivation, combined with a group improvisatory approach as opposed to individual soloing, drives the group's objective for "musical strength through sonic cohesion." Like many of Rothenberg's other projects, Fell Clutch produces some of the funkier and more accessible improv around.

Meantime, Rothenberg spent last November in Paris performing in the Elvis Costello- and Sting-featured opera Welcome to the Voice ("I was kind of a doubler-jazz soloist person") and is about to record his five-movement quintet with string quartet and clarinet. That recording brings Rothenberg to our present iPod-enabled state: "We still spend a lot of time thinking about how much silence to put in between tracks and things like that, what the graphics are…. For the people who buy the CD and read the liner notes and listen all the way through, that'll be one type of experience. But a bunch of other people will download the whole thing from iTunes and throw it into random… and it will be slap-bang right up against whatever other music they're listening to. Right into death metal, who knows."