Wat Sun Meets Jerusalem Cricket

I’m pleased to share a digital 7″ I made with my friend Watson, bass clarinetist and band leader of The Great Blue Heron collective. Wats was trained by Marshall Allen from 2014-19 and has played with the Sun Ra Arkestra, William Parker, and Moor Mother.

To my ears, our music sounds playful, urgent, and disorienting. Our shared abstract language has roots in the lineages of free jazz, free improvised music, raw art, and what a friend calls “smart noise,” except I made sure my contributions were dumb. 🙂 We hope you like it.

Ravi drew the cover and made a music video for “Hair Spray Steam Stacks”:

Wats and I chatted about play as a deep pursuit, colors, angles, ghosts, boxing, chess, basketball, listening, and making sound for no reason. Edited for length and clarity.

W: I think people play music like they play their favorite games. I used to box so I often play music as a boxer dances, on the balls of my feet. I scan for openings the way a boxer would.

JP: I like inventing new games where me and my friends make up the rules as we go. It’s most fun for me when everyone contributes in different ways to fleshing out whatever it is we’re doing. I suppose I also enjoy games where everyone is slightly uncomfortable. Have you always been this nimble or was there a gradual shift?

W: I’d like to think it’s my innate feeling, but certainly honed early in life. A sensitivity toward recognizing what is happening and supplying an automatic contrast that finds beauty in the relationship (proportional or otherwise) formed by my reaction. Or conversely, setting out toward an unknown point at top speed and hoping the act of doing so is enough to make others want to come, too.

JP: Does this describe your approach to boxing, too?

W: In group music, “sizing up” a fellow musician is to hear them in their range of potentials then place yourself in a trajectory which compliments, expands, contradicts, sustains dialogue, etc. The skills to look for a weakness are the same I use to contribute beautifully to the whole.

JP: I agree it’s often just as easy to weaponize “empathic attunement” as it can be to use as a way to disarm someone. I’m excited to hear we share an interest in taking a more cooperative stance when we play with others, but maybe not without some gentle poking and prodding.

W: There seems to be always a next door each of us can encounter and enter that will lead to the next series of doors on to infinity. Also some blocks or diversions leading us away from those same doors. I’ve found that each of us is usually coming from a unique series of paths and being beckoned toward another unique set of portals. Perhaps seeing this is a skill.

The dangerous thing to those who want to rule others is that this way of being human does not cost money or even need to be declared. Helping another get to their next set of pathways is easy in a sense. Group improvisation is a similar kind of expression. Finding what feels best and playing off of another to make a greater coherent experience.

JP: I notice you seem to respond to whatever comes your way in the music, but I never feel like you allow anything to fully dictate your reactions. I also never hear you ignore what’s happening. You play with incredible urgency, but it doesn’t come from a place of desperation to make yourself heard.

W: I’m very thankful you can hear that. I agree that that is my joy with music. I listen but I also don’t. I can feel those two approaches meld into the same result either way. Do you see a relationship between basketball and your music?

JP: Mostly in how I need to practice more, ha! I played a variation on 21 with a buddy last Tuesday and he said my mid-range jumper’s improved in the past year. I have a lot of work to do on my lay-up and my handles.

W: Basketball got much easier for me once I realized that although the ball and the people move, the hoop does not.

JP: My spatial awareness is pretty touch-and-go. Do you play chess?

W: I love chess.

JP: I learned the basics last summer. I still have no idea what I’m doing but I have started to see how chess brings some deep parts of myself into the light.

W: Chess is the only thing my father really taught me how to do. My three-year-old self lost many a game with the words “think ahead” ringing in my ears. Some people like to take as many of the other person’s pieces as they can to destroy the other side. Of course that is not the point of that game. I like to set up options for myself to bend the music a certain way. I am also interested in learning the game Go and seeing how this affects the music I make.

JP: What’s your go-to chess strategy?

W: I love defense so I like to block the other person’s possible moves, especially with pawn placement; I want them to feel stuck. If the other person castles, I drop whatever other plan I had and begin to bend all of my lines of force to that corner, hopefully having sacrificed the pawn in front of the rook on the castling side. This way I can eventually use that rook to pin the king in the castled corner.

It’s a slow, steady set-up as I wait for the opening, then a quick turn of attention to that weakness. Unless their king’s position is switched to a corner, in which case I ignore whatever else has happened to that point and collapse that corner.

JP: “Music as game” seems like such an obvious analogy since the way we engage with both is through play, but I wonder why it’s so rare for musicians talk about what we do in the context of games. Maybe it’s an issue more common among male-identifying musicians.

W: Someone recently showed me a picture of a helmeted football player at a concert, “ready to play.” We all have our own reasons for making music, but in the end it is playing. Groups of people organize themselves to mirror society. If we all do what we want as long as we are not hurting anyone including ourselves, how does that sound? How does the demonstration of community sound in this inclusive group of people working together or apart at once – playing?

JP: You’re making me think about the tradition of Fluxus “game pieces” that are quite literally games, like Ben Patterson’s installation for wind-up toy frogs.

W: To me, pulling strings, pushing buttons, blowing air, tapping membranes, singing are all things anyone can do; they are not exclusive. Just as all of us old children were young children and we all played and still do.

JP: I’m bummed about the persistence of this Western cultural notion that play isn’t a deep pursuit. I’ve at times struggled not to absorb it, too.

W: I think music is most beneficial as a pouring forth. If music is apprehensive and constantly questioning itself and what it should or should not have done, it is alive! It’s not fixed at some point in the past and it isn’t haunted by any previous combinations. It is like ideal humanity expressing itself into existence and not stopping just because someone yells at us or questions our ability. People are only musicians because they choose to make sound against the constant threat of being told to stop.

JP: Yes, I find it curious how our noisy world seems to discourage purposeless acts of making sound.

W: In the end, I am only blowing air through a tube and pressing buttons. If I make it more than that, I feel like I am not only lying to myself about the importance of my art, but weaving a fiction together which feels less by seeming to be more. 

JP: Do you see a context for “games” in the jazz tradition?

W: One “game” Marshall Allen taught me was the “get off my note” game. When melodic instruments participate in a chord, always play a note that is different from everyone else. In that way the chord is always more colorful. I try to play that game in all contexts, except when playing unison as a contrast. Another is to “play shape”, to play according to mental visual curves which embrace any starting point and follow a set contour.

JP: I’m also interested in shapes and curves. Masses, angles, asymmetries, motion, speed, duration, thresholds. I gravitate toward making crude or even failed versions of these structures/phenomena, setting up parameters then letting the unconscious parts work themselves out. 

W: Generating sound sculpture at angles and varying velocities are also very core to me; it’s a pursuit we share.

JP: I dig the energy of sloppily moving through methodically constructed obstacle courses, but I tend to think about a piece of music as an abstract 2D animation rather than an installation-like maze.

W: I hear colors and spaces in your obstacle courses. I hear a type of twirling voice of light which stretches and moves in squiggles through an infinite space while changing within a continuous color spectrum at variable speeds.

JP: Do you consider yourself synesthetic?

W: I experience tones, chords, sections and whole pieces as color impressions. Some sounds just make purple appear in my mind. Thelonious Monk’s ballads are all different shades of red, though “Pannonica” is yellow and “Reflections” is silvery blue. It’s something I can’t prove and enjoy immensely.

JP: Fascinating! I have both powerful responses to color and red/green colorblindness. It would be cool for us to experiment with sounds that correspond to shades of colors that are at the exact threshold of what I’m able to perceive. But I hear what I’m doing in our music as oriented more toward touch than sight. I feel invested in the tactile experience of sound – its grain, grit, coarseness, thickness, density.

W: I think the touch I feel is wind resistance. This invisible painting in liminal spaces is the mystery. Done in certain sensitive ways, it can re-establish ghosts or cause potential futures to take root.

In music, I enjoy the moments when what has happened before no longer matters at all. I also enjoy making what has happened before not matter from the onset, thereby letting the music go onward and outward with no reference to a “past.”

JP: I can relate! I’m interested in the ghosts embedded in cheap, ordinary materials, but also imagining how mountains of disused single-use office supplies might have unforeseen applications in the year 3000.

Even though there’s a fair argument one could make about how “Outsider Art” exoticizes the experience of severe psychosis, I resonate with Jean Dubuffet’s desire to explore “phantasmagoric irrealities.” I have a collection of essays where JD writes about allowing “tatters borrowed from memories of the outside world” to mingle on the same plane as concrete landscapes that evoke “real” soil, grass, rocks, terrain.

W: You’ve often spoken of preferring sounds that do not decay. What do you mean and why do they please you?

JP: I love how sounds with a short decay highlight their limits; you hear the full range of expression as well as the conflicting forces acting upon them. I want to hear the unique struggles that sounds endure to come to fruition, particularly fragile or unstable sounds. When I hear the sound’s attack emphasized, its source is exposed and made vulnerable in a way that reinforces an aesthetic and ethic of honesty I strive for.

When I embed sounds that have a short decay in long patches of silence, my mind’s ear reconstructs a reconfigured or maybe disfigured memory of the sound, churning in perpetuity. I like how the sound stays closer to my ear and for longer.

I find I can enjoy listening to my memory of a sound as much as experiencing sound in the present. I can also get excited about the potential of what could have a sound. For instance, I think I was so moved by my imagined sound of our collaboration that I felt compelled to email you.

W: I really appreciate your explanation. It’s an approach I enjoy observing and need to learn from. Creating sounds which stay close to the ear is something I would like to develop in my own way.

JP: I have much to learn from you, too. Do you miss the Blue and South Mountains?

W: I do. I am a mixture of different human cultures like the rest of us, but I find that Lenapehoking (the proper name of the land where I’m from) is the piece of this planet that has nurtured my spirit and shown me some of my selves. My spirit animal — the heron — comes to me there and provides guidance if I am attentive.

Watson (b. 1985 in Lenapehoking, Turtle Island) is a bass clarinetist and band leader of the improvised music collective The Great Blue Heron. Trained by Marshall Allen (director of the Sun Ra Arkestra) from 2014-2019, and a proud member of Philadelphia’s improvised music scene since 2010. Watson helped premiere William Parker’s “Flowers in a Stained Glass Window” in Philadelphia in 2014 and was part of Parker’s “Tone Motion Theatre” at Brooklyn’s Roulette the following year. He is a member of Heru Shabaka-Ra’s punk-avant-garde band Sirius Juju, which played Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s “Outsiders Festival” in 2016 and 2018, and was selected to participate in the international sound art residency “Residencia Sao Joao” in Brazil in 2019. Watson is featured on the latest BRAHJA album “Watermeloncholia” (2022), along with Luke Stewart and James Brandon Lewis, which presented its debut performance at the 2023 Vision Festival and participated in the European debut of Moor Mother’s “Jazz Codes” album at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis in February 2023. He is currently working to complete studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and lives with his partner and two small children.

Jonathan Pfeffer (b. 1986) writes, makes music, draws, and organizes. His work (right now) explores small everyday acts of defiance and subtle comedies of error as responses to the anonymizing influence of the built world on collective ritual and individual identity. His hope is always to document unique experiences of time and space. He lives in Philadelphia where he is a second-year clinical social work graduate student.

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