Tim Daisy's trio Vox Arcana falls into that murky zone of experimental music that easily intimidates the casual listener. Just look at the influences that Daisy—a drummer best known for his work with the Vandermark 5—cites in the notes accompanying the new Vox Arcana album, Aerial Age: John Cage, Terry Riley, Anthony Braxton, Robert Rauschenberg.
But Daisy, whose stop in Knoxville is fittingly at the Fluorescent Gallery on North Central, says it is music for anyone with an open mind (or, as we say around here, big ears).
"I want anyone to be able to come in and get something out of what we do," he says in a phone interview from Chicago, where he has lived since 1997. "From the positive feedback I've gotten from Vox Arcana, even from people who know nothing about experimental music, or very little, they really appreciate the energy and the focus of the music."
Vox Arcana is certainly easier to listen to than to describe. Daisy alternates between drums, marimba, and assorted unconventional percussion instruments (knitting needles, pots and pans), while cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and clarinetist James Falzone weave in and out, the three of them sometimes playing in perfect sync through tightly written passages of minimalist jazz, and other times bursting out and away from each other in extended improvised runs.
Daisy, who writes the group's music, formed the trio in an attempt to bring together his own disparate musical loves: the rigor and austerity of composers like Riley and La Monte Young, the conceptual explorations of Cage, the expansive openness of free jazz. As a result, Vox Arcana pieces play on the tension between order and chaos, composition and improvisation.
"That's what I'm interested in, those two spheres, those two areas," Daisy says. "Tightly written thematic material, and then complete open improvisation, and the synergy created between the two areas. That's exactly the reason I have this group. And in my opinion, for the music to work right, you've got to have musicians who will not only know where I'm coming from in regards to the source material, but who are also really strong improvisers. Luckily, in this city, there's plenty to choose from."
It was Chicago, with its long avant-garde traditions, that changed Daisy's ideas about what music could be. He arrived in the city fresh out of junior college in Lake County, Ill., as an aspiring rock and jazz drummer. But he was soon drawn to the Velvet Lounge, the legendary free-form jazz club started in 1981 by the saxophonist Fred Anderson. "I think one of the first more avant-garde concerts I went to was Fred Anderson with Hamid Drake and Peter Kowald, and that really blew my mind," he says. "I'd never heard anything like that before."
It was exciting to watch talented improvisers play with, off of, and around each other, he says. "One of the things I'm very interested in is the communication between the musicians, how they were able to communicate without a real set form or structure. I thought, ‘How are they doing this?' It was free improvisation, but it seemed to me that they really understood where they were at all times."
Not long after, he started his own improvisatory explorations with the saxophonist Dave Rempis. They formed a trio with a bass-playing friend, the first of several combos they would end up in together. Eventually both were recruited by rising sax luminary Ken Vandermark for his eponymous quintet, which also includes Lonberg-Holm. Over time, Daisy also became more focused on his own compositions, and he formed Vox Arcana a few years ago as an outlet.
He says one of the rewarding things about writing music that allows lots room for improvisation is that the pieces are never really finished. They keep mutating and changing as the group finds new paths through them. "Night after night of playing this music, one single piece can sound so radically different, even though let's say 30 percent of the music is written," he says.
As for the whole accessibility question, Daisy recalls an anecdote about Derek Bailey, the great British guitar improviser who died in 2005. "He was having a little argument with one of his kids, and his kid was a chemist or something, and he was like, ‘Dad, I just really don't understand the music you're doing.' And Derek Bailey's response to him was, ‘Well, you're a chemist, I don't really understand what the f--k you're doing either.'
"So, just because somebody doesn't understand something," Daisy says, "I'm still hoping, you know, just take a chance, listen to it. We try to do what we do well, and hopefully you can respond to that."