Interview: Joe Foster (2007)

1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?

I had two years of very basic piano classes as a child, of which I remember very little. I did study poetry in an academic setting for a long time, with well-known poets, however. I suppose poetry informs my music, but there’s not much for me to say about that. My poetry education did influence my approach to music, very directly. After years of writing and reading poetry, and studying with accomplished writers, my own writing was not very good, arguably even worse than when I started. I struggled for years to find a voice and a way of my own to approach writing, but to no satisfying end. Then, when I started playing music, I encountered many “trained” musicians who were struggling to transcend what they had learned. So I made a very deliberate, and somewhat perverse, choice: to only learn from my ears, my instruments, and my playing partners. I’ve played cornet or trumpet for 10 years and I don’t know the notes. My approach has been that I’m playing until death, and by then, I’ll be good at something, and this is the strategy that interests me.

2. What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is you relationship towards it?

I play acoustic and electronic instruments, both together and separate. I play trumpet, often on a bass drum or floor tom. I also play non-instruments and occasionally bow metals or wood. An instrument I play a lot is a balloon stretched over a rice bowl, which I play with an upside-down trumpet mouthpiece so it acts as a sort of home-made membranophone (you can hear it on the first two tracks on my solo cdr, Ethics). I also play opened delay pedals, a mixer, and microphone feedback. I like to have a lot of options sometimes, and I’m not very interested in having a single “schtick” with which to identify myself; I don’t want to be a brand like that. What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument? I met a dude one day and we went back to hang out at his place, a garage behind someone’s house, and he had a bugle on the wall. I played it and was able to make sounds pretty easily. I loved it. I looked for a trumpet for a long time, and then I found a beat up old Conn student cornet at Fairly Honest Bill’s for $40. I had a natural affinity for it, but I really came to appreciate the fact that it’s simply a tube; all the sound is a product of my body, my lips. Brass instruments don’t have reeds to generate sound. I also like that it’s changed my face in noticeable ways. I developed my preparations and techniques on my own, and avoided hearing other trumpeters in this field for a long time, which, in my case, was beneficial.

My delay pedal circuit ideas were directly inspired by Bryan Eubanks, but we went in quite different directions in how we use them: his use of circuits is far more sophisticated and developed than mine, which is completely primitive (but not naive). I developed my own approach to microphone use. I initially started using electronics after living in Seoul for a while, since most of our venues (at that time) had horrible acoustics. Since I was running my trumpet through the PA anyway, I started using a mixer to control volumes, panning, and EQ, and that led me to add other electronics.

In nice-sounding rooms (like the new Yogiga in Seoul), I still love to play acoustic music. In fact, I don’t like electronics in rooms with natural reverb.

3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?

I came to this music from two directions at the same time. As a listener I was being pulled toward metrically and harmonically idiosyncratic music, and as a reader and thinker I was being repelled by orthodox and conformative practices.

I didn’t know anybody who made (or even listened to) this kind of music, so I developed for a while in a vacuum, but before long I met JP Jenkins and Bryan Eubanks, and we developed together for several years (in Super Unity and as a trio) until I left for Seoul in 2002. Working very closely with them, for many hours every day, really made me think and question and play and play, and think and question. It’s a little amazing to me now, but all three of us, even as we were beginning, totally committed ourselves to doing this music for life. Bryan and JP still play major roles in my life and my music. Distance matters not to friendship, and there is no such thing as time.

4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?

I like hearing improvised music, and I don’t like the idea of playing someone else’s music (or expecting someone else to play mine). It’s very much my nature, as well, since I’m really not a planner. I think of improvisation as both outlandishly simple and bafflingly complex. It’s a way of living, of thinking. “Spheres balancing on spheres.” I really think of it in terms of choices and potentials, rather than techniques and sounds. I’m also deeply affected by my playing partners: I often find that my musical and personal affinities are the same. I don’t know anything else that is so structured to be non-linguistic communication, and the practice of making a discipline out of freedom seems bottomless from where I stand now.

5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

I’m finally at a point where I’m accepting that I have aesthetic preferences, but I’m still pretty doctrinaire about planning (in my own practice, I mean, not in a prescriptive sense). I approach every playing situation with as blank a slate as I can, and try to reserve the right (within my relationships with playing partners, and inside myself) to make any choice that the music calls for. That said, I no longer feel the need to be self-consciously “spontaneous” – too often that sort of behavior strikes me as forced, and players who work in that way seem to me to be imposing themselves on the music. I’m not at all interested in doing that.

6. Do you “practise” for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of “practising” for improvisation?

When you improvise, do you use sounds that you’ve already “tried out”, and how much room is there for actual sound experimentation? Typically, I play a lot – a couple hours almost every day – but I never practice. Recently, however, I’ve tried playing less, maybe once a week. Regardless, I try to approach every playing situation with the same attitude about its function. I think of all my music as “a practice” (like yoga or running). This attitude has reinforced itself to me by noticeably improving my ability to drop into focus and escape myself when I’m playing. When I play, I rarely think in a conscious way, I’m thinking too fast (or slowly) to even notice it. I sometimes experiment with new sounds and techniques when I play, and I actively try to seek out my habits. Habits will always exist, but seeking “lines of flight” has been fruitful to me so far.

7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?

I don’t have good answers to these questions…but I’ve thought about them a lot…on one level, the urge to evaluate is pernicious, but on the other hand, it’s such a powerful human impulse that fighting it can seem ridiculous. I evaluate shows based on their effect on me and using whatever context I have available to me (past shows, past recordings). I evaluate recordings as recordings, as objects, since I can listen to them more than once. My opinions often change dramatically, so I’m pretty sure they’re more about me than about the recordings themselves.

As for evaluating players, it’s very hard. I only feel comfortable forming evaluations about players I’ve repeatedly heard in person, since I can put performances in context and can perceive development and habits.

8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?

No. I record a lot, at home, so I’ve inured myself to that pretty well. Bonnie Jones and I (English), for example, recorded almost every weekend for a year.

I have avoided doing recordings specifically for release so far. I don’t like the idea of thinking that the music I’m about to make is slated for release; instead, I’d rather play and record a lot, and release music only when I record something that seems to demand it.

I have nothing material to gain from playing this music, so putting out a lot of releases, or being on well-known labels, or promoting myself doesn’t hold a lot of appeal to me. I’m glad other people organize things and put labels together, but I’m not very interested in that aspect of the music, and I doubt I’d be good at it.