Sunday, December 14, 2014

Davey Williams 13 Questions

Davey Williams, born in York, Alabama in 1952, is an American free improvisation and avant-garde music guitarist. In addition to his solo work, he has been noted for his membership in Curlew and his collaborations with LaDonna Smith. Davey Williams is acknowledged as one of the founders and preeminent exponents of American free-improvised guitar playing.

Williams began on guitar at age 12. He played in rock bands in high school, and studied with blues musician Johnny Shines from the late 1960s until 1971. Early in the 1970s Williams played in the University of Alabama B Jazz Ensemble and the Salt & Pepper Soul Band. During this time he began involvement in new jazz, avant-garde composition, electronic music, surrealism and free improvisation. In 1974 he founded with LaDonna Smith a musical recording, improvisation ensemble and independent record label called Trans Museq. 

He was active in the Rev. Fred Lane’s Debonairs and the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue. By 1976 he had appeared on his first published recordings. project called Transmuseq. He toured the U.S. and Europe in 1978. He also led the Birmingham-based group avant-blues band Trains In Trouble, then joined Curlew in 1986, who released several albums on Cuneiform Records through the 1990s.

For about five years in the mid 80s/early 90s, not enough people seemed to realize that the best live band in the USA was Curlew. Their heyday featured the classic line-up of leader George Cartwright (saxes), Tom Cora (cello) (who also played with Holland's legendary art-punk band, The Ex, as well as being half of Skeleton Crew, with Fred Frith), Davey Williams (guitar), Ann Rupel (bass) and Pippin Barnett (drums). Curlew were one of the groups that defined ''the Knitting Factory sound', along with Naked City, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, James Blood Ulmer, Last Exit, etc. They packed the clubs (CBGBs, Mudd Club, The Knitting Factory), toured hard throughout the world, and thrilled audiences and critics alike with their unique, infectious blend of punk-jazz/downtown sound, roadhouse blues & a distinctly Southern esthetic. 

He has worked with many contemporaries in new composition and free improvisation, including Anne LeBaron, Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, the Shaking Ray Levis, Jim Staley, Ikue Mori, Amy Denio, Gustavo Matamoros, Col. Bruce Hampton and the London-based improvisational trio Say What!.

In the 1980s he also worked with Col. Bruce Hampton and OK, Nurse, and in the early 1990s played in a punk rock band called Fuzzy Sons. 

Williams co-founded The Improviser, a journal of experimental music, in 1981. He has also worked as a music critic for the Birmingham News and published freelance criticism elsewhere. Williams has appeared live at some 1,500 concerts worldwide. To date, he has appeared on many recordings, and has performed nationwide and internationally in a wide variety of solo, ensemble and multi-media events. Throughout this time he has published many articles on music, improvisation and surrealism, and a cartoon book, Which Came First: The Fried Chicken or the Fried Egg?.

Based in a noted musician's decades of personal experiences, his book Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011) examines some crucial and far-reaching aspects of musical free improvisation, with particular regard to live performances. In this illustrated collection of narrative essays, the author looks both into and from inside this uniquely paradoxical, challenging and rewarding way of making music, within the context of an inherently eccentric milieu.

What do you remember about your first guitar and your your playing learning process?

It was a Silvertone acoustic, given to me by my parents at Christmas when I was 12. Played it for years, even after I took up electric guitar. Later during my high school years I painted the front of it in day-glo psychedelic designs. Still later, after I moved to Tuscaloosa, I loaned it to a guy called 'Caveman.' He kept it for months. He was always going to bring it back 'next week.' Finally he did bring it back, and then after a few weeks he wanted to borrow it again.
For reasons I still don't understand, I loaned it to him a second time, and in the forty years since then I have never seen either of them. Anyway I like to think that 'Caveman' did not steal my first guitar, he apparently just needed it more than I did. For all I know he might still be playing it. I hope so at least. In fact I'd really like to hear that.

Learning process. For a long time it was quite haphazard. 'Playing by ear,' as they say. Sitting in front of a record player, wearing out certain tracks, listening to them over and over with the guitar, trying to pick out parts. In fact many of the most important developments in my learning have come while playing with other musicians, especially those infinitely more skilled in certain areas that I didn't have a clue about.

What do you expect from music?

I'm not sure I expect anything per se from music. I get a lot from music, to be sure, on a lot of different levels, but the best stuff is always unexpected. In fact I'm more concerned with what I can put into the music, especially in terms of expectations.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

I'm most frequently surprised while practicing. Much of my work has to do with free improvising, which can often be fertile with ridiculously unforseen developments.

What's the relevance of technique in music?

Technique is crucial. Any technique: Taught/learned and practiced, self-invented, accidentally discovered, deducted. Technique of course can be instantaneous under certain circumstances, but most of the time there is no replacement for developing ever-widening finesse, endurance, energy-management, attention to detail, expanding briefly-occurring ideas, dispassionately hearing what it sounds like, always by way of improving and developing the relationship with the instrument and the depth of expression.

What’s the difference between a good player and a bad one?

If it has any legitimacy at all other than a subjective judgement, this difference probably has to do with active listening and intercommunication while making sound. In any case, what's appealing ("good") or unappealing ("bad") about someone's playing can change over time, maybe in just a few minutes.
The difference between someone I like playing with or not would have to do with in-the-moment communication tendencies, good vibes, joy of disovery, the experience of mutually piloting a tornado or a leaf, etc. A "bad" player doesn't listen, doesn't know, doesn't care, doesn't 'get it' yet, etc. And I say 'yet' because everybody was once a bad player, or can be at any time, even momentarily, and at any skill level.
As an aside, I should note that I've been fortunate to work with a lot of players who are far more accomplished than I am. In terms of learning, this has been incredibly valuable to me.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's music scene?
I'm not sure what today's music scene is, or even if there is a single scene. Regardless, there are different challenges now with many more possibilities, which could be beneficial especially in the areas of reproduction and availability. Although actual benefits remain as they always have been, ephemeral and unlimited.

Leader/saxist George Cartwright, guitarists Davey Williams & Chris Cochrane, bassist Ann Rupel & drummer Kenny Wollesen perform live on The Stork Club on WFMU

Depict the sound you're still looking for. 

There's no single sound, or sound area that I could identify myself as trying to locate. There is though a certain kind of extra-audible quality that I'm generally looking for in my playing, regardless of what extremes the music may be going to.
A certain elegance and lyricism, at least in my opinion. I'm attracted to a sense of phrase, even within cacaphony. The transcended voice, a silky timbre from an amplified steel rod. In any case, a hearable visual quality, aural projections on a cinema screen stretched between our ears.

How would you define silence? and noise?

In the physical world, true silence is a near-impossibility, or a metaphor. In actual practice though, 'silence' is the vital element that gives sound its value. A controlled series of short silences is what gives sound its rhythms, its propulsive expressitivity. A long silence becomes a context for other events, for example music, even though silence is also a musical event.
As such, silence is one of the two necessary components of music as we generally understand it. The other of course is sound, most (but not all) of which is audible.
To me, 'noise' is not a useful term for describing sound. Implicitly subjective, a kind of non-description that suggests either inattention to the details of a given sound(s), or simple dislike. For me this word is mostly useful as an ironic compliment to another player. 'Man, that was some lovely noise you were playing.'
Anyway there's interesting noise and then there is irritating noise, sometimes in the same sound, and at the same time. It depends who is listening, and in what context. In short, noise is largely a matter of taste rather than definition.

Curlew live in the Netherlands ca. 1990. These recordings were originally released in Poland in the early 90's in a cassette-only release of 110 copies.Davey Williams, guitar, Tom Cora, cello, Pippin Barnett, drums, George Cartwright, sax, Ann Rupel, bass

What are your motivations for playing music?

I think my initial motivation to play was naivete. 'Role-model imitation.' Self-identity. As soon as I really started trying to play the instrument however, I realized that I had undertaken a lifelong practice. A kind of mandate to invent, to learn, to cultivate, to evolve and interrupt, maybe to amuse, please or challenge myself or someone else. To be able to hear certain guitar music which I can't already hear by listening to another musician.

What's your best musical experience and your more crazy project?

This is impossible to say, as my entire musical experience is an ongoing affair which has presented so many beautiful moments. This includes some horrendous screw-ups as well as those transcendent moments that in fact defy description anyway. 
Crazy project? I probably haven't done it yet. Either that, or it was so crazy that I don't remember it.

Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?

Before I took up playing guitar, I had no particular interest in music at all, so such experiences likely occurred through some sort of osmosis. Unrecognized proto-musician events. Propeller airplane droning overhead, echoes, marching bands muffled by distance, birds, a horse next door, a train, a hunter's gunshot from the woods.
Although outside of any conscious musical sensibility, I noticed sounds in the environment, for example the way that the sound of a distant event would arrive after I saw the event occur. 'Doppler effect,' things like that.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in a very small town. Less environmental sound than in the cities where I have lived since, emphasizing the particular sounds, which I now have to listen closely to discern.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

The first was probably a Rolling Stones 45rpm single. I don't remember exactly. The most recent CD I recall buying is a box set of the complete works of Anton Webern.

Dream about a perfect instrument.
Given the omnipotence of human imperfection, even in the smallest degree, a perfect instrument might have to play itself if was going to make 'perfect music, which would be its only purpose. This suggests that it would be a better musician than its player, and this could be bad news for the player of course. In any case, if my equipment is working ok and I'm not breaking strings, my instrument is sufficiently perfect. 85 per cent, say.

Concerning actually dreaming a perfect instrument, a handful of times during sleep, I have played instruments of capability and design that surpassed anything in waking life. I can't recall details, but I am certain that some of these dream instruments were not exactly guitars, as we would think of them. One of them might have been some kind of plant.

What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?

I place as much value in working with words as with sounds, even though sound is often more immediately engaging, at least to the central nervous system.

Painting is of very great interest to me, looking at paintings, how and why they're done, what they show and say, what they sound like, even. I also do paintings, and drawings. And a cartoon book about fried eggs.

Over the years I've done various projects with dancers, but very little work with proper theatre, except with the Rev. Fred Lane in 'From the One That Cut You,' which was in fact highly improper theatre.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?

I come from a very small town in a rural part of Alabama, where I didn't experience in person much music being played. My family mostly just listened to whatever might have been on the radio or television, although we did not listen to gospel or country music. My most influential musical roots really are acquired roots, encountered at the beginning of my teens.

Crucial meta-musical influences include countless books, certain movies, television shows, paintings, weather conditions, dirt roads leading into the woods, love, flying slowly in a small airplane at 600 metres, 'pataphysics, surreality, spiritual matters, experiencing weightlessness, history, the color blue, hummingbirds, a steam locomotive...I feel sure there are more that don't come to mind just now. Some of these influences may be secrets even from myself.

What would you enjoy most in an music work?

Hearing something I never imagined, some sort of discovery, realization, or virtuosity in play. Or it could be that it triggers something joyous, or revelational or funny, something that may have nothing directly to do with the music itself.

If you could, what would you say to yourself 30 (or 35) years ago, about your musical career?

For me to say anything to my former self might be a bad idea, because anything I say today could influence my early-1980s self to decide to do something that made my life different than it is today. In which case I might not be talking with you now, because of something I heard myself say thirty years ago. And I wouldn't want that!

Although it probably wouldn't hurt anything if I said, "Use a smaller amplifier."
Now that I think about it, I actually did start using smaller amplifiers around that time, so by this logic, it's possible that I made this amplifier decision thirty years ago because of what I just now said.

What quality do you admire most and What do you most empatize with in another musician?

This is hard to say, since most of us are scoundrels.
Joking aside, I most appreciate innovation, perseverance, virtuosity, lack of virtuosity, experience, good psychic energy, etc. There's no single quality actually. Musical greatness takes many forms.

Empatize. With one person it might be in the playing rapport, in another a friendship or camaraderie only possible because of playing together, sometimes only on rare occasions. A kinship of purpose, often unexpressed. And moving equipment and instruments in the rain.

Which living or dead artist would you like to collaborate with?

There are quite a few living musicians that I'd like to collaborate with, or collaborate with again. Come to think of it, I suppose I could just call them up and ask them.
The same thing goes for dead artists, except that attempting to collaborate with dead artists would require a committment which I'm quite unprepared to make. In any case, that's a session I prefer to postpone indefinitely if possible.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

Listen very closely to everything, all the time. Pay attention to details. Watch the other players. Cultivate energy and breath management. Every performance is equally important. And don't try to be funny.

What instruments or tools do you use?

I primarily use that funny-looking "headless" Steinberger electric guitar, sometimes with limited foot pedals. And I play 'slide' guitar, considering the slide itself as a 'tool' (and like the guitar, a personal friend).

I also use actual tools such as an electric screwdriver, electric toothbrushes, specialized motorized objects (plastic shark, baseball glove, etc.). Also: kitchen implements, metal tape measure, metal rods and fragments. strings, cards, rough and polished stones, on occasion a 2-meter length of aluminum rod, cello bows, house cleaning implements, etc. Although I have never used alligator clips. Or liquids.

A lot of the smaller things I carry around in the guitar case, as they are part of my equipment. Most of them were acquired intuitively, found or spontaneously-selected objects that appeared to have unique sound-making potential in combination with electic guitar.
Some of these objects are indispensable for certain areas of sound, although there are some that I have been carrying around for 10 years and still haven't figured out how they are supposed to make any sounds, yet I remain convinced of their indispensibility.

New Music America 1981: Concert 4
In 1981 the New Music America Festival came to San Francisco for a week full of concerts, sound installations, and multi-media performances. The fourth concert of the Festival, held on June 10, 1981, included works by Laurie Spiegel, Peter Gena, and George Lewis, as well as a live improvisation by LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams, and two musical performance art pieces by conceptual artist Jim Pomeroy...

What do you like the most about being a musician?

A lot of it is kind of ordinary activity. Practicing, travel, saw something unforgettable, ate something I shouldn't have, amazing moment in performance, it's all part of playing music, and I suppose like it all, including the parts that I don't like. Apparently you can't get one without the other.
Actually, trying to answer this is for me a little like a giraffe trying to choose his favorite spots.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

It's more a process than a specific project. Refining/expanding solo guitar improvisation as a composer would a written work, yet without repertoire. Or rather, an unpredictable repertoire of probabilities based in arcane and ridiculous methods of repetition, collage, harmolodic convulsive blues, fragmented song forms, timbral camouflage, romantic dynamics, comedic happenstance, etc.
Guitar as a polyglot sonic voice, inherently orchestral, which seems to be presenting the musics of a dauntingly benign and eccentric culture somewhat like our own. 

The 'project' part will no doubt be a solo recording, or series of recordings, since this area of practice is turning out to involve a much larger palette than I first thought. I'm also in the early stages of arranging ensembles to record a cd of songs and meta-songs that I've written over the years. Other than that I'm playing, either solo or in varying ensembles. 

Recently I've begun getting an idea for another book. I've no idea what this book is about but fortunately that's not necessary at this point. This was also true in the writing of my earlier book, "Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation," which turned out not to exactly be about music. 

This new book probably won't exactly be about music either. But it will have pictures.
Incidentally, I couldn't predict what the future holds, although there's no reason to think things will be any less interesting and marvelous than they always are.

 Selected Discography

(Say Day Bew LP 1976)
Large group project, big band, electric appliance orchestra, etc.

(Say Day Bew 1978)
Large group improvisations, anarchy music.

(Say Day Bew LP 1978),
Big band theater project with Fred Lane & the Debonairs

(Trans Museq 1, LP 1977)
First TransMuseq Release. Solos, duos, trios, quartets, and quintet with Davey Williams, LaDonna Smith, Theodore Bowen, Timothy Reed, and Jim Hearon.

(Trans Museq2, LP 1978)
Trio with LaDonna Smith-piano and viola, and Ted Bowen-string bass.

(Trans Museq3, LP 1979)
Trio with Anne LeBaron and LaDonna Smith.

(Trans Museq4, LP 1979)
Trio with Andrea Centazzo and LaDonna Smith, recorded in Italy.

 (Trans Museq LP5, 1980) 
Live duos (rec'd Belgium/U.S.) with LaDonna Smith

(Parachute LP 1980, re-released 1997 on Tzadik CD box set 'The Parachute Years')
With John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, LaDonna Smith & others.

(Virgin LP 1980)
Solo on British anthology, produced by Fred Frith.

 (Ictus LP 1980)
With Andrea Centazzo and LaDonna Smith

(Parachute LP 1981)
With Chadbourne, Zorn, Frith, Smith, Tom Cora and others.

(FMC LP 1982)
Quintet with L.S., Gunter Christmann and others, recorded in Germany.


(Trans Museq6, LP 1982) 
Quintet with LaDonna Smith, Pippin Barnett, Danny Finney and Paul Watson.

(Trans Museq7, LP 1983)
Quartet with LaDonna Smith, Christmann and Torsten Muller

 (Trans Museq8, LP 1985)
Solo electric guitar

(Trans Museq9, LP 1987)
Trio with LaDonna Smith-violin/viola/voice, and Cinnie Cole-banjo.

(Trans Museq/Black Swan 1984)
Comic book by Hal Rammel with 7" EP by L.S. and D.W.

(Shimmy Disc LP 1987)
Guest soloist on Bongwater/Kramer/Ann Magnusson band

(Shimmy Disc LP/CD 1988)
With Fred Lane & His Hittite Hotshots

(Cuneiform LP, later reissued as CD 1987)
With George Cartwright, Tom Cora, P. Barnett and Wayne Horvitz

(Actuel/Victo CD Canada 1989)
With LaDonna Smith, recorded at the Actual Music Festival, Quebec.

(Non-sequitur Foundation CD 1990)
Duo with LaDonna Smith on compilation.

(Trace Elements CD 1989) Guest soloist on Nicholas Collins' electronic music project

(Knitting Factory CD 1990) With Curlew on compilation

(Ear-Rational CD 1991)
With the Anne LeBaron Quintet

(VOTP England 1992)
Trio with Steve Noble and Oren Marshall


(Einstein CD 1992)
With Jim Staley, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins and Tenko, produced by Fred Frith

(Cuneiform CD 1992) with Curlew

Curlew Photo Michael Macioce
(Cuneiform video 1992)
Curlew concert video recorded in New York City

(Sky Ranch CD France 1993, reissued Rhino Records 1996),
With OK Nurse quintet on slide guitar compilation.


(Trans Museq/Shaking Ray Levis CD 1993)
Live duos with LaDonna Smith. Recorded in St. Louis, Mo.

(Cuneiform CD 1993),
With Curlew and Amy Denio; lyrics by Paul Haines


 (Table of the Elements 7" EP 1993)  Solo electric guitar

(Einstein CD 1994)
Duo with LaDonna Smith on compilation

(Mode/Tellus CD 1995)
Operatic ensemble with Anne LeBaron, Fred Hopkins, Thurman Barker and others.


 (Cuneiform CD 1996)  With Curlew

 (Einstein CD 1996) 
With Jim Staley and Ikue Mori

(Ecstatic Peace CD 1997)
Solo and overdubbed guitars

(BVM CD England 1997)
With Billy Jenkins big band


BirminghamIMPROV 96
(CD 1997)
With Randall Shurbet & Kelly Burnette,
also with LaDonna Smith, Boris Rayskin & Gino Robai;
Yuri Zmorovitch, Arkady Kirichenko on compilation.


(Ping Pong CD, England 1997)
With the Say What! trio (Steve Noble & Oren Marshall)

(Cuneiform CD 1997) With Curlew

With Ned Mudd (CD 1997)

(Book with CD 1997) With Jim Staley & Ikue Mori on compilation CD


(CD 1998) With Eugene Chadbourne

Remembering Tom Cora
(Tzadic Box CD, 1999) With Curlew on memorial compilation)

 (Abray CD, 1999)  
Duets with Abbey Rader


(Leo Records 1999)
Misha Feigin with Elliot Sharp,
Eugene Chadbourne, Craig Hultgren...

 (CD ROM 1999) 
With Glenn Engstrand, LaDonna Smith, Doug Carroll, 
Wyman Brantley, and others on interactive program.

Davey Williams And Numb Right Thumb
(CD, Album 1999)
Megalon Records Meg06

Davey Williams & John Corbett 
(14 Improvisations And A Monograph On Failed Wind Instruments) ‎

(CD, Album 2001)
Atavistic ALP124CD

Cuneiform Records Rune 157

Roaratorio 2003 

(CD, Album 2003) 
Cuneiform Records Rune 177

1st Album + Live At CBGB 1980 
‎(2xCD, RM, Comp 2008) 

(CDr, Album 2008)
Trans Museq trans museq 18


Andrea Centazzo, LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams
The Complete Recording Vol. 1 - Velocities
(CDr, Album 2011) Ictus Records ICTUS 150

Andrea Centazzo, LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams
The Complete Recording Vol. 2 - Halcyon Days ‎
(CDr, Album 2012) Ictus Records ICTUS 159


Andrea Centazzo, LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams
The Complete Recording Vol. 3 - Rituals
‎(CDr, Album 2013) Ictus Records ICTUS 169 2013