Z'ev: Swords into Plowshares

An Interview by Mike Hovancsek


I first became aware of Z'ev when I heard the work he was doing with the legendary and controversial group Psychic TV.  Psychic TV was one of the groups that influenced the punk, industrial and noise movements while constantly remaining one step ahead of all the self-proclaimed trend setters.  Later, I heard Z'ev's work with symphonic composer Glen Branca and, still later, Z'ev and I were invited to perform at an experimental music festival as part of New Music Across America.

At that time, Z'ev had taken on such a mythical status in some strata of the new music world that I had no idea what he would be like in person.  I had heard from various semi-reliable sources that he was a homeless, psychotic genius who was prone to violence.  I also heard that he had just completed a fairly heady book about the use of rhythm in ritual and ceremony.  Listening to his complex and highly unusual percussive music, it was hard to determine whether or not these rumors had any basis in fact.  One thing was certain:  The music I had heard was crafted by an extremely interesting and unique person.

When I met Z'ev, I had to admit that, with his shaved head and his worn combat boots, he did look a bit like the type of guy who would try to sneak a bomb into the passenger compartment of an airplane.  To my relief, however, Z'ev turned out to be a really nice and highly intelligent person.  He showed some interest in my work and in other new approaches to music.

When it was time for Z'ev to perform, he played a single, relentless, hour-long percussion piece on stainless steel gongs and titanium pipes.  The resulting music was a dense barrage of rhythms, overtones and shifting textures that were as exciting as they were meditative.

Some time later, Z'ev and I talked about collaborating on a few music projects.  At the same time, I decided to try to squeeze in an interview so that I could attempt to separate the facts from the fiction in the career of this unique artist.

Can you give a brief description of the history of your work?

I was playing improvised, electronic, pre-jazz rock with Carl Stone on keyboards, James Stewart on bass, and me on drums 1967-69.  I went to Calarts in 1970, played with EWE Ensemble (Ghana), studied TALA, and hung out around Balinese Gamelan musicians.  Later, I stopped playing music and worked more with FLUXUS artists who were there, especially Emmett Williams, focusing on concrete and sound poetries.

In 1975 I was asked to join Cellar-M, a multi-media group that came out of Calarts.  This group was eventually transformed into Rhythm & Noise and is now called Sound Traffic Control.  While working with them, I went from traditional percussion instruments to using stainless steel and PVC plastics.  In 1976 I left Cellar-M along with Will Jackson (Tschrepnin Synthesist) and formed an improvising electro-acoustic band.

In 1978 the punk scene was happening big in San Francisco so I reformed my instruments into a solo set and began performing at the Mabuhay Gardens.  I went to the East coast in the Fall of 1979 for the first time, moved to NYC in the Spring of 1980, had my first European tour in the Fall of 1980, etc... etc...

What ideologies have you embraced or developed over that time?

"Empowerment of the Audience" and "Shamanistic Qabala."

Can you describe these ideologies?

Back in the '70s to mid '80s there was an issue being batted around by composers from Robert Ashley to etc... to Z'ev regarding forms of improvisation which were felt closer to formal composition than to improvisation as it is commonly practiced.  In line with this, I was seeing composition as a dialog-ical as opposed to monolor-ical process:  That what the audience, themselves, heard was the composition.
 
This arose as a direct result of the music I was producing at the time:  The assemblages and the performance based instrumental technique (i.e. moving the instruments through space).  The music was actually a form of orchestrated acoustic phenomena.  The result was as much a negotiation between the instruments and the actual physical space affected by and then effecting the sonic energies they produced.
 
It was a very rich and dense sonic field that resulted.  It was up to the audience to decide which line to hold as rhythm, which as melody, which as harmony, etc...  For example, a common response from an audience member would be "You know, tonight I finally heard the music."  They realized that the music had been there all along, but that they finally heard it, they finally come to grips with organizing it for themselves.
 
This also relates to the bottom line definition of music - noise, if you like - and why when first faced with any other culture's music - to the non-initiated - it generally appears as noise.  For example, they are unable to organize it to the point where they can appreciate it as music.  So then, whenever I am in the musical process of generating acoustic phenomena in performance, it is then axiomatic that the audience is equally and actively involved in creating their listening experience.  I see that as an empowerment of them.

What about Shamanistic Qabala?

Bottom line, "qabala" simply means tradition.  It specifically relates to oral traditions.  In the West it is generally considered an astral/cosmological system, based in/on the planets and the stars, embracing a highly developed system of correspondences between particular dynamics of cause/effect and concept/form embodied in humanity and cosmos.  The traditions that I draw upon have to do with the effectiveness of rhythm - its ability to invoke particular mental states, contribute to the healing process, etc...  This is the shamanistic statement - and the qabala-istic - in that I have adapted the animistic/earth-based conception of shamanism and wedded it with the "highly developed system of correspondence" extant in the qabala.

You wrote a book about your musical ideas.  What kinds of ideas did you explore in it?

The book I wrote in 92 was entitled Rhythmajik, Practical Uses of Rhythm, Sound and Number and was published by Words & Jackie of Temple Press out of Brighton, England.
 
It is not about music but about the use of rhythm and sound for trance, healing, etc...  Basically, it strips away the mysticism from what is known as the Qabala and presents it in as neutral a form as it has ever been presented.
 
There are over 5000 beat patterns included under a variety of headings.  It also includes the most evolved numerological information.  It has applications for people interested in Tarot, astrology, numerology, apart from any specific interest in sound.

Is there a unifying theory that links your visual and sonic works?

A unifying theory?  Rhythm.  There is rhythm in variety-of-line and in light-and-dark and in the cadence of language and of course in sound - pitch - timbre - amplitude.  All can be seen in terms of rhythm.

How would you describe your playing style?

Since 1985 I worked with mallet percussion, playing non-traditional rhythms.  They are non-traditional in that they are not drawn from Western musicological tradition but rather from universal trance practices.  I deal more with duration than with time.

Who inspires you musically?

Mostly jazz artists inspired me in my development - John and Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis.  John Cage would have to figure in there somewhere - not musically but conceptually....  I have been influenced by a lot of writers: Joyce, Beckett, G. Stein, Patchen and artists: DADA, futurism, FLUXUS, Pollock....

What cultures interest you musically?  What combinations of cultural influences do you try to represent your work?

Over time I've heard about all the music that's been recorded of indigenous cultures.  My favorites include Tibetan, Korean Opera, and Senegalese drumming.  I haven't really been a listener for about the last 10 years.
 
The cultural influences represented in my work include I Ching - that music is the bridge between worlds - and pervasive: Music is a major healing force.

How does the I Ching relate to your work?

The I Ching reference relates to the actual book of 64 hexigrams and in one of them the quote "it was left to music to build a bridge between the worlds" appears in the oldest commentaries.  I must have first come across it when I was 17 or so and it pretty much inspired me to pursue this, shall we say, mode of music.
 
The second part of the answer - pervasive: Music is a major healing force - means that I am particularly attracted to cultures where music overtly fulfills that role.

How did you get started working with titanium gongs and pipes?

I have no titanium gongs.  Finding a suitable form to begin with would be fairly hard because they don't make tanks out of titanium.  For gongs I prefer to use stainless steel.
 
Instruments start out as found objects of various forms - circles, rectangles, squares, or cubes, tubes - of a material that I'm interested in.  Then, they get tuned.  That is the basic process that I'm involved in with them.  That is what turns them into an instrument.  It's similar to the oft-told concept of sculpture where the artist is said to "liberate" the form that is already inherent in the mass they are confronting.  I'm not liberating form but, rather, song.

What is it about titanium that interests you?

It is axiomatic that the more heat and pressure are expended in the production of an object of a given material - the greater sonic potential there is when that object is sounded (struck, bowed, etc...).  Titanium is at the very highest end of this scale.

How did you get your hands on titanium?

The first pieces I obtained were cost overruns from the Titan nuclear subs.  They were from the cooling system in the missile bays.  If a missile was launched - and as it was burning in the sub, developing the power to blast its way up from the bottom of the sea - the outside water would be pumped at super high pressures through this titanium tubing. This is how it was explained to me.
 
The water (and very cold water it is down there) would almost instantly turn to steam.  While the titanium tubing would be white hot, it would still maintain enough structural integrity to convey this steam.
 
Another military use for titanium based on this same propensity is its use in anti-tank missiles.  Basically, you fire a cone shaped mass of titanium at a tank.  The titanium turns white hot and melts its way through the tank, splattering those inside with the now molten remains of what were, moments before, armored plates.
 
And yes, there is more than a bit of a "sword into plowshare" intention in my use of this material, none of which would matter, really, if it did not produce the most awesome amounts of acoustical phenomena when it is resonating.

You have been credited with influencing musicians in several areas of music.  What is it about your work that enables you to cross so many boundaries?

I would have to assume that it's because: (1) I deal with a music of sound (not a sound of music),  (2) I was playing "tribal" rhythms before Bow Wow Wow brought them to general pop attention, and (3) Branca tells me I'm seen as "totally uncompromising".

How did your collaboration with Glen Branca come about?

He came backstage the first time I played at TR3 in NYC.  We became friends.  I would say that it was due to the friendship that I consented to perform in his 2nd Symphony.  Although it caused a falling out and we didn't resolve it until sometime in the 90's.  So I guess we didn't speak to one another for over 8 years because of that piece.

Tell me about the CD you recorded for John Zorn's Avant label.

It's called Heads & Tales and will be done under the project name HYPERcussion.  In 1990 I got hooked up with DJ Dano of Amsterdam's Dream Team of House DJ's (The Prophen, Buzz Fuzz, Dano, Gizmo) and worked consistently with him in the studio.
 
 I was working intensely with drum machines DSP devices and putting aside some structures on the side.  In Feb. '93 Zorn was in Amsterdam and came by.  I played him some of the stuff and he commissioned an album from me for his Avant Project (40 titles total).  In May I went to NYC and signed the contract and began composing.
 
In June I added the Tales aspect - which was going through my collection of found cassette tapes that had people talking (a tape of first screenings by a speech therapist for example) and making cut-ups that were synched to the music.  I did all the programming, effects work, etc...  Van Lagestein of the Helmholz Theater label in Amsterdam did final computer edits of the voice tracks.
 
I went to NYC to record it in August 93 at Fat City, Wharton Tiers' studio on 22nd St.  We recorded it in about 6 days and then Glenn Branca came in to help with the mix.  Zorn was not involved.  It's supposed to come out, finally, almost 2 years later, in September of this year.  [It was released in May 1996 - Ed.]

What are you working on these days?

Gary Ichihara who runs 2.13.61 with Henry Rollins seems to be interested in a new Heads & Tales project for release in Spring 95.  It will be more trancey/ambient musically and concentrate on cut-ups of the voice of Marvin Minsky (the AI theoretician from MIT).
 
For the most part, I've fairly retired from playing music and am concentrating on developing projects for a variety of media and multi-media applications.  In 94 I returned to LA to put 3-5 years into getting projects going in this area.  It is moving slowly but surely on.

How does Marvin Minsky's work influence your work?

Marvin Minsky doesn't interest me at all.  I don't agree with hardly anything of his theories about the brain I've run across - but I did get a chance to see some of the material a friend of mine amassed when she was involved in videoing him at a conference, talking formally before audiences and informally with small groups of people.  I could not believe the things that were coming out of his mouth.
 
If anything he is doing relates to numerology and rhythm patterns I am unaware of it.  My friend Maryanne Amacher who is a long time friend of Minsky's and knows both our works has never pointed our any possible correspondence to me.  If you are aware of something I would be interested - it would give another angle to work up the next series of Heads & Tales from.

This may sound like an obnoxious question but as a musician and an artist I am always curious about this issue:  Are you able to survive financially with your work?  I keep meeting really legendary musicians/artists who, to my surprise, have to hold conventional jobs in order to support themselves.  I have even heard of a few well-known musicians who were homeless from time to time.

I haven't had what is known as a "straight" job since 1978.  I have worked for other people.  For example, I've done occasional work as a PA on commercials and for trade shows.  That was short stint stuff.
 
For three years I taught at the school for new dance development in Amsterdam.  But, all in all, I have managed to survive.  Not that I consider it any more glamorous a job .  It is just as boring and aggravating as most other jobs I've had.  I still end up working for idiots.  They just own me for briefer periods of time than if I had to be there every day.

Have you found that it is easier to support yourself musically in Europe?  They seem so much more responsive to new music out there.

It's hard to say what the climate is like in Europe right now.  I've been away for two years - and for the last three years I was there I was not involved with the "new music scene" hardly at all - but had fallen in with some house musicians in Amsterdam.
 
House has not really hit over here in the states the way it did over there, where I would say it is the next wave to break after punk.  Here in the States it's all a very sad retro scene where all the young musicians seem to just be rehashing ideas that were not all that hip when they were in their heyday.  America is a very sad place at the moment.
 
 

Brief timeline of Z'ev collaborations:

*Up until 1988 worked with Naut Humon from Sound Traffic Control.
*From 1978 on worked with Johanna and went to Los Angeles.
*Worked with Glenn Branca in 1982.
*Worked with Rudolph Grey in New York City from 1981-1983.
*Played in a brief trio with Tim Wright of Pere UBU / DNA in 1984.
*Worked with movement artist Simone Fort from 1975 on in US and Europe.
 *Worked with Viennese multimedia artist, Konrad Becker (Monoton) from 1981 in Europe and Japan.
*Worked with Gylan Kain (Founder of the original Last Poets) in Amsterdam beginning in 1985.
*Project manned Mother Tongue in 1990 we worked on a gospel / Bou Dun Duet version of King Lear.
*Worked with Andrew Mackenzie (Hafler Trio) in Amsterdam in 1986-1987 also under the name Mother Tongue (including poet Doro Franck)
*1985 Beat Boxes & tapes in duet with Toshinorio Kondo (trumpet).
*1986 performed in Rotterdam and Amsterdam as member of Catalonian performance group La Fura Del Baus.
*From 1986-1991 worked with Bow Gamelan (Anne Bean, Paul Burwell, Richard Wilson) producing Spectacles throughout Europe and Mexico.
*1991-1993 Worked with Genesis P. Orridge etc in Psychic TV versions in England and Boston (one duet recording - Direction of Travel produced).
 


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