Dan Plonsey, pfMENTUM, August 1999
by Jeff Kaiser
Could you give us a few pertinent biographical facts?
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, 9/1/58. Grew up in Cleveland Heights. Started playing clarinet at age 6 or so. (I wanted to play saxophone but wasn't big enough.) I started to follow jazz at age 15, after hearing Maynard Ferguson! Received my BA from Yale University in 1980, in math and music; had a summer session at the Creative Music Center in 1979; received an MA from Mills in composition in 1988. My most influential teachers were Martin Bresnick and Anthony Braxton. I've composed approximately 150 pieces, including 3 string quartets, 3 pieces for orchestra, around 40 pieces for multiple saxophones, around 30 pieces for 8-12 piece ensembles, 144 one-page piano pieces, et cetera.
Who were your early influences?
At 18, I started to listen to Ives, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Kagel; then Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton. Also some of the minimalists, especially Reich and Riley. I read lots of John Cage's books. Then a couple years later began to listen to Ornette, Lacy, Coltrane, and everyone else; then more recently music from India, and now music from all over the world.
Who inspired you into the creative improvised/new music fold? Do you have a preferred title for this genre?
I prefer the title creative music. What inspired me? I would say equal parts the great composers and the great improvisers of this century, especially those mentioned above. Sun Ra above all, and then Braxton, with whom I studied at Mills. Braxton not so much for his compositions themselves, but for his attitude: generous, excitable, interested in everything; part analytic philosopher and part mystic. Also, Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith, with whom I took classes at the Creative Music Studios -- they (and Braxton, and Sun Ra) emphasized the need for compositional thought as an integral part of musical activity, that improvisation without a compositional context is limited. Furthermore, they believed in grounding and backing up their compositions with a philosophical and theoretical framework. I very rarely perform in purely improvised settings.
Every historical period has its ars nova and ars antiqua, Mozart was new music to Bach, but old music to Beethoven. It is tricky to use terms or classifications for music that is on the leading edge of the flow of history, because today's new music is tomorrow's old music. Yet we need these terms to enable us to discuss the music. Why do you prefer creative music over other terms? Some people would say this implies another genre, un-creative music...
I've used the creative music label mostly since I first heard it in the 70s. Braxton used it, the Creative Music Center (where I studied with Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, Karl Berger et al) used it, Cadence Magazine uses it -- it's a term which is recognized by many people. I don't like improvised music or free jazz or even avant-garde (which I used to use), because those are all limiting: I'm very much a composer, I don't know if I play jazz, and I think of myself being more on the edges than always in the advance. Besides, I do like the implication that there is un-creative music, because there is! I would like to ally myself personally and in genre with musicians for whom creativity and imagination are the most important forces. For Sun Ra creativity was a special necessity, to the point that his Creator and his God appear to be different entities: the Creator creates, while God is more of an abstraction. So I see the "creative" in creative music as an attribute of the music itself: the music itself creates things, it doesn't just sit there. It's not just an idea.
When you say "philosophical and theoretical framework" do you mean aesthetics? Or more of a socio-political framework? What is the philosophical/aesthetic framework that informs your compositions and improvisations?
In general, I like music that encourages its practitioners and listeners to heighten their own creative efforts. The best music also has its own character and its own manner of operation which is moving and/or inspiring. And, at this point in Western musical history, musical performances and compositions have no obvious or necessary context (that is, no religious or political context and the social context is minimal with the music as little more than a commodity), so it is necessary for the composer and performers to create a context in which the character of their music can be perceived, the ethos of their music developed and communicated, and in which some sort of creative response from the audience can be made. This is what Sun Ra, Braxton, Leo Smith and others have done with their mythology, commentary and theory. I want to continue to develop this myself for my music -- I feel that I have a long way to go in this area, but there's a sense of inclusiveness I try to foster, a beauty which comes from a particular combination of naïveté, absurdity, melancholy and arrogance. Since I've started to include my 2 1/2-year-old son in performances, I've been getting a little closer...
You are well known in creative music circles as one of the founders/directors of the Beanbender's Concert Series in Berkeley. How did this series get started? The venue location was in flux for awhile, do you have a new location? Who have been some of your favorite groups to come through Beanbender's, and why? Do you have a most memorable personal performance there, and what made it so memorable?
Bonnie Hughes, who has a history of running anarchic art galleries (her philosophy could be summed up as: "Don't ask permission!"), and who is a genius at getting developers to give her space for nothing, asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to run a concert series in her new space on Shattuck Avenue. She'd had a smaller gallery on the other side of the street which had two music series. I decided that it would only be possible if at least three people worked together on it, so from the beginning it was a partnership (with Bill Hsu and Seth Katz; Seth left after a year, and we added Alan Brightbill, Nancy Clarke, and later, Moe Staiano). The name came from a Daniel Pinkwater story about a club called Beanbender's with all sorts of oddball performances and good cheap snacks. I think it was enormously successful for the nearly 4 years in its original location! A lot of great musicians played fantastic sets there, most memorably: Fred Frith, Eugene Chadbourne, Parker/Guy/Lytton, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Wadada Leo Smith, The Creative Opportunity Orchestra, The Clusone Trio, Barre Phillips, Vinny Golia, ROVA, Paul Plimley, AMM, Nels Cline, Roscoe Mitchell, John Butcher, Pauline Oliveros and Jeff Kaiser...also, sets which I would say were equally exciting were performed by people you might not know: Opeye, Matthew Sperry and Carla Kihlstedt, Ben Goldberg, Snorkel, John Schott's large ensemble, Toychestra, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Gino Robair with Georg Graewe and Tim Perkis, Gianni Gebbia, Rotodoti, Jon Raskin Quintet, Bonnie Barnett, Graham Connah, Myles Boisen, and perhaps a few things of mine, and plenty of others...
The first concert is still one of the best: Opeye in their masks and costumes performing their multi-layered dada improvisation, followed by the Nels Cline Trio in top form. Fred Frith played solo very early on, and nearly 300 people crammed in; the music was fantastic, and I felt that now anything was possible for us!
There were remarkably few disasters, given Bonnie's habit of occasionally forgetting to pay for utilities. One time, though, Joel Harrison's Octet was scheduled to play, and our power was turned off. We finally had to run a 100-foot extension cord to the pizza place next door! The pianist played by candlelight. And when AMM played, someone had a private party overhead at the same time. We convinced them to keep the music down for a while, but 50 minutes into AMM's set, dance beats started to filter down. At first AMM was loud enough that it was barely noticeable -- it could've just been Keith Rowe's radio, but after a while they quieted down while the dance music got louder -- it was a 20 minute long segue, very beautiful!
Another favorite memory is of the time that I arrived late, and Ben Goldberg, Francis Wong and Elliot Kavee were playing so quietly, sparsely, and intimately, that I felt that I'd left our world behind, had died, and gone to Limbo. Anyone interested in the history of Beanbender's might want to look at http://astro.berkeley.edu/plonsey/beanbenders.html
Its current status is as a once-a-month series in the Berkeley Fine Arts cinema. That's not very satisfying, so we're going to try a series of festivals. One will be called West By East Bay and will feature artists living in the East Bay (not San Francisco). The other in the works is: Spaghetti Western which will feature music by Italians, Italian-Americans, and music on themes which are Italian. And there will be lots of pasta. That will be in the Spring of 2000. I'm changing the spelling of my name to Plonzi so I can sneak in!
The group performing at the Ventura New Music Concert Series is called Dan Plonsey and the Human Behavio Orchestra and Chorus. The spelling as above is correct, there is no "r." How did this name come about?
There was a fire in the house behind mine. There was all this burnt debris by our house, and I went to take photos of it. There was one book in the pile, and the title read Understanding Human Behavio; the "r" had been burnt off. I found the title intriguing...
Selected Discography: As leader or co-leader
99 Open Door And Desire, solo and multiple saxophone compositions, vol 2. (NewTone); 98 Understanding Human Behavio, music for oboe, cheap synth and voice (Limited Sedition, 006); 97 Ivory Bill, solo and multiple saxophone compositions, vol 1. (Music and Arts, 982); 97 Child King Dictator Fool, The Great Circle Sax Quartet: Chris Jonas, Randy McKean, Plonsey, Steve Norton (New World, 80516-2); 96 Another Curiosity Piece, Plonsey, John Hinds, Peter Hinds, Mantra Ben-Ya'akova (Omni Sonic 002); 92 Dipping Into Color, The Manufacturing of Humidifiers (Plonsey, Randy Porter g, Steve Horowitz b, Jim Bove d, Ward Spangler d.) (yes.no.lp 03 (cassette only)); 91 Dire Images of Beauty, The Manufacturing of Humidifiers (Plonsey, Rajesh Mehta tpt, Randy Porter g, Steve Horowitz b, Ward Spangler d.); 89 The Manufacturing of Humidifiers, The Manufacturing of Humidifiers (Plonsey, Randy Porter g, Steve Horowitz b, Jim Bove d.) (yes.no.lp 01 (cassette only)); 95 Wavelength Infinity - arrangements of Sun Ra compositions. (Rastascan 018); 93 (Y)earbook, Vol. 1 (Rastascan 008).
As a sideman he has recorded with Gino Robair, Eugene Chadbourne, Ron Anderson, John Hinds, Steve Horowitz and others.
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