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Damián Toro: How did the interest for music grow in you?

Tom Swafford: I grew up in a musical family- my father played piano and my mother played the cello. My brothers also played music. I was lucky enough to have very good and inspiring private teachers as well as orchestra and band directors. My parents were amateur classical musicians who loved to play a lot and one of my brothers played jazz and rock music. So I had exposure to a lot of styles of music growing up. My Dad also composed and improvised at the piano.

Damián Toro:
I met you in 1997 when in Berkeley I did a call for a performance called “A wedding in Sproul Plaza”. You participated with three more musicians amongst them Jenny Sheinman, Greg Pitter, and Patty Liu. I liked your interest for the experimental, the way you interpreted an Andean theme was very interesting. I would like you to tell me how you felt that time and what relationship you had with “performance art” or if that was your first experience with that type of art.

Tom Swafford:
That was a very powerful performance. I believe that was the first time I had done a performance art piece in a public space that was not specifically a performance venue so it was interesting to see the reaction of the crowd, most of whom were not expecting a performance to take place. It was also a great experience to learn and arrange the song. I actually played a bit with and Andean group on the subway platforms here in NY and we performed that song. We did it in a more traditional way.

My first exposure to performance art when I was in 9th grade, at the Bush School in Seattle. I took a class called New Art. We learned about various types of performance art in the class. I presented a multi-media performance piece about suicide for that class. I had been having some suicidal thoughts, though never seriously considered suicide. But I was alarmed to even have these thoughts and the piece was a way for me to process that. I recited poems that I wrote and used music that I composed and recorded. Photos I had taken were projected behind me.

Some time around then I watched a documentary about The Living Theatre on TV, and this inspired me to find out more about experimental theater.

Then in college, at Tufts University, I took a course on experimental theatre. I wrote music for several pieces by Craig Quintero (who now teaches at Grinnell College) and Paige Sorvillo (who is an active movement and performance artist in San Francisco).

I also performed music for spoken word pieces by my friend Lee Todd Lacks. He and I were in the Tufts New Music ensemble. He and I still perform together. We have done performances at many places including Panoply Performance Laboratory in Brooklyn, which is an excellent venue and presenting organization for performance art.

Damián Toro:
I was looking at your personal website TOMSWAFFORD.COM as your blog TSWAF IN BROOKLYN and found a lot of relevant information. You refer to what you have been doing over time, that is, it is worth noting, a lot. I wanted to know: How has your relationship with music changed since 1997 and today?

Tom Swafford:
In some ways I find composing more difficult now than I did then. When we met I was a graduate student in composition at U. C. Berkeley and, of course, we were expected to compose a lot of music and get it performed and we met regularly with our instructors. I have still managed to compose quite a bit since I finished graduate school, but having that expectation to compose is a great motivator.

I am constantly searching for an aesthetic as a composer. I have written audience friendly pieces, that probably would not have been approved of by my professors. At the same time I have continued to write and play experimental music. In order to become established as a composer it does help to have a clear identity and style that you are associated with and I feel that I am still searching for that.

My awareness of the music world has grown much larger over the years. When I in college at Tufts and we were doing free improvisation in the Tufts New Music Ensemble I had no idea that there was a very big community around the world that played this genre of music, and it had a long history. While I might have had some knowledge of it at Tufts, when I got to Berkeley I really experienced it first hand.

After Berkeley I spent a year in Amsterdam studying with composer Louis Andriessen. I also did quite a bit of improvisation while I was there.
I then moved home to Seattle for 4 years where I became involved with the creative and improvisation community.

When I moved to New York in 2007, my awareness of the many thousands of people creating new music grew even more. Being around so many amazingly talented and successful people is both inspiring and daunting.

I like the idea of a composer being in dialogue with all of the music of the past and being part of a tradition that goes all the way back to the first music ever created. I want draw on all the music that I have played in my life and all of the experiences I have had while playing music, and even not playing music. I am always looking for new inspiration as well. I find it most in listening to live music, particularly music that involves improvisation. I also enjoy listening to music from other cultures and thinking about how attitudes towards and processes of music making differ throughout the world.

My awareness of music is still constantly growing. All of this is important to musical development but, at the same time, composition is a different process. I have found it more difficult to put all of that information in a different part of my brain while I compose and allow it to influence my writing but not thinking about it consciously. In the end, composing really is just about getting the music out.

Damián Toro:
Tell us about String Power. I listened to the theme by Slayer “Raining Blood” and I thought it was excellent. I am not an expert in music and maybe I am exaggerating, but that is my opinion. I am not a fan of heavy metal but when I heard your interpretation what came to my mind was Noise Music, a type of music that I love. Tell me, what do you think of Noise Music?

Tom Swafford:
I don’t know a lot about Noise Music. I have performed in improvisational ensembles that I think would fall in the category of noise music, for example with Seattle artist Noise Poet Nobody who does very intriguing work.

One of the reasons I started String Power was to explore all of the different textural possibilities inherent in string ensembles, from the lush, sustained music typically associated with string music, to the more aggressive, noisy music like the Slayer cover. In that type of music I especially like literally the noise that the bow makes on the string before the note.

In classical music, there has always been a wide range of expression, particularly in the last 100 years, but people who are less familiar with classical music, tend to associate string music with just one type of sound; and I wanted to appeal to people outside of the classical music world. This is one reason I wanted to arrange music from a wide variety of genres. Another reason was to aid in my search for a compositional voice of my own, which could incorporate elements from these other genres.

Damián Toro:
You say you don´t like music that has been edited and perfected artificially. That you like “all the subtle nuances, scratches, ´mistakes´ that happen naturally” as this makes in great measure that the music be expressive. Is this the idea that lead you to experiment for example, with music in the subway?

Tom Swafford:
I find that the little scratches and imperfections can often make music more expressive. I often intentionally use these imperfections but it is not always a conscious choice. But even when I make a mistake, I try to make some kind of musical sense out of it, to make it mean something in the overall context of the music.

I started playing in the subway to reach a wider audience and to help support myself financially. It has been a great way to reach people and I have met many wonderful people through my subway playing, including my girlfriend! When playing in the subway I have found that I get the best response when I am focusing on the way I shape musical phrases and paying attention to every detail of my sound, which often includes those subtle nuances and scratches.

When I listen to music, I like to be reminded that I am hearing a human being playing or singing; a lot of music today is perfected by so much computerized editing that it becomes sterile to me. On the other hand, too many scratches or out of tune notes can distract from the music and make it less effective.

I am interested in all of the subtle nuances of sound, phrasing and rhythm that are different in every style of music; all of the stuff “between the notes”. Often these scratches and slides etc. are an integral part of the style of the music and if you were to hear only the notes, the style would not be recognizable. I am interested in the many other ways besides notation that music is transferred between people and down through generations. When learning music by ear, you have a completely different understanding than if you were to see it written down. In some cases, the actual notes are quite simple but there is so much information in music beyond what can be written down.

Damián Toro:
You published in your blog a letter that an spectator of one of your concerts had send you and where he critiqued harshly the type of music you had presented. Personally I think that this type of reactions in the audience are always necessary and positive even though sometimes they can be unfair. It has happened to all of us and I liked the way you assumed it. In general, we, artist tend to reject critics. Do real critics of music exist in New York? What do you think has to be the function of a specialized critic in the field of music?

Tom Swafford:
The best critics are very knowledgeable about a wide variety of music, and can place music into a wider context that I might not be aware of. Critics play an important role in that they are free to offer an honest response to the music that audience members, while they might feel that way privately, are less likely to communicate to the artist. That is not to say that I always agree with critics.

Critics have an immense amount of power. Just seeing words in print, or on line, about a performance or recording gives it a sense of importance and legitimacy. It is as if music that is not written about does not exist. And well-known and trusted critics have even more power. So we depend on critics to further our careers. With the internet, there has been more opportunities for the general public to review our recordings, for example on Amazon, and I like that there is this possibility as well because sometimes a non-professional critic can have an interesting point of view as well, but I don’t always agree with those reviews either. If our goal is to be known and appreciated by a lot of people, we need someone to say that they like our music so that others who have not heard it will become aware of it.

It could be argued that true artists create only for themselves and are unconcerned about what others think of their work. But I think that the great majority of artists concern themselves with acceptance at some level. I imagine that composers that we know spent time honing their careers and appealing to critics, or royalty or funding committees, other composers, etc. There are those cases where artists who perhaps created only for themselves are discovered long after they are dead. Maybe they are the most genuine artists since they lived only for their art and not for approval of others. But I am not as noble as that. I someday hope to be recognized for my music while I am alive.

But, that being said, my first priority is pleasing myself. I want to create music that I really truly love and that I can say fully defines me as an artist, musician and person. But of course, developing ones art is a life long process and I probably wouldn’t even want to get to that “fully developed” point because then what would I do? But even if did get to that point, or close to it, I would still need people to write positive things about my music in order to be recognized and to gain a reputation and be able to sustain myself financially as an artist. In order to survive, whether by selling my art or by teaching, I will always need to have approval from someone. I envy people who make a living doing something unrelated to their art because have the freedom to make whatever art they want without depending on anyone’s opinion. But it is always a trade off because having a non-art related job takes time and energy away from the art.

Damián Toro:
The art of performance is always critiqued, there are, for example, in Latin America, critics that have as far as to say that doing “performance” is the same as doing anything, that it is not art. Does something similar happen with contemporary music?

Tom Swafford:
There are those who have argued that conceptual pieces, John Cage’s 4’33” (written almost 70 years ago) being the most famous example, are not music; but these days the definition of music is constantly being stretched. There is music that is noise based and there is music that is as more about the performance that the actual sound. There is a large movement of freely improvised music that is focused on players communicating together and reaching a higher level of consciousness than it is about creating pleasing or memorable sounds for an audience. Many people who create collages using recordings of environmental sound, for example, use the term “sound-art” instead of music to describe what they do.
People may label something “not music” in order to discredit it and suggest that it has no value. I am not interested in arguments about what is or is not music. To me, all of it has value, whether you think of it as music or not.

Damián Toro:
By the way, what is your concept of the contemporary?

Tom Swafford:
Contemporary could be used to describe to anything that is created now, in the present, even if a composer is consciously writing in the style from the past. Of course composers who do that might not consider themselves contemporary, but I would leave up to them to decide.

I suppose that for some people, in order for something to be Contemporary it must to relate to whatever the current trends of music are, and to the times we are living in. I don’t want to write music that sounds like it was written 100 years ago (and actually a lot of my music does sound like that) but on the other hand I don’t want to be too conscious about trying to fit in with current trends, like using the latest computer program to compose, just so that I can make sure my music sounds like it belongs in 2016. I also want to write music that does respond in some way to the current times, especially with all the horrible stuff going on in the world. The clearest way to do that would be to use text. I might write some very violent, angry or angst-filled music without text to express how I feel about the state of the world, which could be therapeutic for me, but I don’t think the meaning would be there for the audience, it could just as easily be about something else.

Damián Toro:
Do you consider yourself also an artist of performance?

Tom Swaford:
I do consider myself a performance artist, but I consider myself a musician and composer primarily. I have done pieces that involve speaking and physical movements that go beyond what a musician normally does. I have also written music performance pieces which could be considered music theater.
I did a lot of acting when I was growing up, and that has stayed with me when I perform. I tend to act out the music when I play, and I think this shows up in my facial expressions, although I don’t do that consciously. I think that my experience with theater definitely influences my performance style and how I think about music. Everything you do on stage, your posture, facial expressions, how you enter and exit the stage, etc., influences how people experience the music. This is why I enjoy watching live performance. For example, the physical gestures a pop singer makes can add great deal to the experience of the music. There are some who would argue that music is just about sound, and everything else is extraneous, but I like to think of music as more of a theatrical experience. Some performers, like virtuoso pianists, might exaggerate the physical movements to appeal to the audience. I have also seen pieces where the musicians have been choreographed. But I am more interested in the movements that people naturally make when they play. I would like to write more performance pieces that explore things like authentic vs. inauthentic movement.

Damián Toro:
Tell us, to the ones who don´t know: what is the difference between the experimental and the classic?

Tom Swafford: I like to think of experimental art as art that asks questions, that challenges you to create your own interpretation and changes your perceptions about yourself and life in general. Classical, or older art or music, and also popular arts in general, fill in everything for you. You know what to expect because you have heard it before. It is familiar even you have not heard the exact piece before. It is soothing and comforting.
Most people, I think, listen to music in order to relax. This is the function of music for them. Also, it brings up fond memories and allows them to relive moments of their past.
I should say that classical music does not necessarily fit this description. There is plenty of classical music that is challenging and asks questions of the audience.
But I find myself thinking more about the difference between conventional and experimental, or maybe between art music and popular music. I play both kinds. When I play in the subways for people on their way to work, or for people vacationing at Yellowstone National Park in the summers, or at my Mom’s nursing home in Seattle, I want to play soothing, comforting and enjoyable music that might trigger wonderful memories. I don’t want to discount how important this way of listening to music can be. It can be tremendously healing and powerful.

But when I am composing, I want people to be actively involved in the music in a different way. Music can be extremely powerful, it makes you think and feel things in a completely new way; it can change how you experience life. I don’t think of composing as inflicting this power on the audience. It is not about the composer challenging the audience but more about the music itself challenging both the composer and the audience.

Damián Toro:
I read in one of your articles that during your studies at Berkeley you had learned that music is not a universal language. It is very common to hear people say the exact opposite, that is to say that music is the only universal language since, in theory everyone can understand it. Tell me, why is music not a universal language?

Tom Swafford:
I first was introduced to the idea of music not being a universal language in an Ethnomusicology class at Tufts. It goes back to the arguments about what is and isn’t music. There is music (like perhaps the music of indigenous Australians) that people only familiar with conventional popular music might not consider music. People from a very isolated place might hear classical music only as a collection of noises because they have never experienced anything like it before. I had a friend at Berkeley whose father was Chinese and he loved Chinese opera and hated Puccini, it did not even sound like music to him. Where as those who enjoy Italian opera might feel the opposite way.

I said that today there is such a huge variety of music being made that is all across the spectrum between conventional and experimental. But as long as people have been making music, there has been the same degree of diversity in the music of different cultures. And there is music out there that is so different from what we are familiar with, it is like hearing a language that we do not understand.

And much of experimental music is the same way for people. You have to open your mind to not understanding it and find a way to remove your expectations and just experience it. The first step might be to put aside the question of whether it is or isn’t music.

Damián Toro:
How complex do you think that electronic music is?

Tom Swafford:
Of course, the person creating electronic music is not limited by human capabilities and is therefore free to create the most complex music possible. The question is how will it be for the listener to experience this music. I have heard that the human ear can only perceive three things at once, and after that it becomes more of a wash or a sonic cloud. I’m not sure if that is true- probably it’s more like 4 or 5 things at least. But of course you can have one million things going on at once in electronic music.
Some people write electronic music for people of the future, whose brains will have developed more than ours. I am not sure if the people creating music just have super advanced brains or if they also are not able to fully perceive their music.
There is complex electronic music and there is simple electronic music, just like with all music.
And going back to what I was saying before about the nuances in music, even if you have music that might look simple on paper, it could be extremely complicated if you were to try to notate all of the subtle inflections etc. I read about a blues piece for string quartet that someone had listened to and thought it sounded great, like authentic blues, which is very difficult to achieve in a classical string quarter. It also sounded like it would be fairly easy to play so they ordered the sheet music. When the music arrived, it was extremely complicated because every nuance and slide was carefully written out.
Because it was actually written out does this make the music more complex than, say, a blues guitarist who plays by ear and uses all of the same subtle inflections?

Damián Toro:
Do you believe in talent?

Tom Swafford:
I believe that talent is developed and not something you are born with. But it is possible that someone could have a natural aptitude for music and there are some great musicians who grew up in a non-musical environment and in very adverse circumstances but musical (and any other skill) is usually the result of the environment the child grows up in. If a child is lucky enough to have great teachers and parents who encourage the child to learn and to practice this is the best. But a child could find that inspiration in people in the community as well.
I was very fortunate to have musician parents who could also provide lessons for me. My Dad taught me piano and I had two great violin teachers, and perhaps even more importantly, my Mom (who was a cellist) worked with me every day for an hour on violin. I hated it but deep inside I knew I had to do it. I even had to practice when I had friends over, the friends just had to entertain themselves for an hour. It’s possible that my parents perceived some sort of musical aptitude in me when I was a small child, but I owe any musical abilities I have now to the great teachers I’ve had, and to my parents and the environment I was lucky enough to grow up in.

Damián Toro:
Finally, tell us what it is like to do music in New York and about your plans for this year.

Tom Swafford:
New York has a tremendous amount of highly skilled, fully committed artists. It is wonderful to be a composer here because people are completely dedicated to creating the best possible performance of your work. This is due to a high level of skill, a passion for music, and to the fact that being fully committed to a performance or recording will help musicians further their own careers. I have put together some great concerts and recordings of my music and collaborated with many excellent artists during my time here. It is also a daunting place to be because there are so many people doing amazing things, getting all kinds of noteworthy recognition and building illustrious careers. I probably spend a little too much energy worrying how I fit in here, when it would be better to focus my energy on my own work.

In the coming year I plan to continue to perform with my ensemble String
Power and promote our debut album, which came out last September. I will also write and record a set of solo violin pieces. This project will be a way for me to integrate the many musical experiences I have had, particularly playing on the subway platforms, into my own style of composition. I also hope to collaborate more with dance, theatre and performance artists- hopefully you!