with Christof Knoche
Tafuri: So, you feel like the title for this group — Line Zero — has new significance now.
Knoche: It might provoke associations to Ground Zero, which is just a matter of the words; it doesn't mean anything else. It's just "zero" after a word like "line" or "ground" might provoke associations, but the group is much older than September 2001.
Tafuri: Where did you come up with the title? What's the significance of it for this group or for your music?
Knoche: Basically, for me, it was like this: I came over here to the States, and it was my first group.
Knoche: My group. All my own music, all my own concerts. I thought I started at line zero. You know, the first real project to start with.
Tafuri: How did you end up hooking up with the guys in the band?
Knoche: We all studied together, all at the Manhattan School of Music within one year of each other.
Knoche: Yeah. Bob was done one year before I was done. I was done before Russ was done, but I was together with Danny [Dan Weiss]. Actually, the first concert this band gave was my final recital.
Tafuri: And that was when?
Knoche: In May '99, then we made the record right afterward. So, we had one performance before we made the record. But I wanted to have it, I wanted to record it right away.
Tafuri: Well, how did you get into jazz? We all have our stories. I guess you grew up in Germany. . .
Knoche: I did grow up in Germany, and my father is a musician — an amateur musician, but very dedicated.
Tafuri: What kind of music?
Knoche: He's playing, you know, old time Dixieland music.
Tafuri: Ah, "classic jazz" as they now call it.
Knoche: Yeah, he was playing guitar and banjo.
Tafuri: Really? Oh, so you heard it growing up.
Knoche: I went to a lot of Sunday morning [things] where, you know, everyone would play their old-time jazz. He's had this group for 40 years now, and they still play the same music that they played. Oh, don't put that on the cover, he might. . .
Tafuri: Oh, it's OK, it's already on tape. I mean, what's wrong with it: if they like to play it, what the heck? If they have fun. I think too many people, unfortunately today, don't have fun; they've forgotten about the fun aspect of music, at least here in the United States. Like, it's OK to play the piano "just OK."
Knoche: Plus, it's funny that they didn't do it professionally. Like, they just did it on the side — very dedicated, but not as their main [thing]. It's funny, because you can have more fun that way, because you don't have to think about it — you know, how you're going to make a living with it — you just can enjoy playing the music.
Tafuri: Well, that's why I said, for many years, that I never went full time into music: because I wanted to enjoy it. I didn't want to have to make it a profession and now — uuuuuuuurgh !
Knoche: But it works. But, when I started, because that's what I saw, I always wanted to play clarinet, 'cause they hardly ever had a saxophone player. But it doesn't even matter, because it was the clarinet that always fascinated me. You know, the black thing with lots of keys. I was really small. The clarinetist was always playing the most notes or the fastest or whatever, so I thought "Wow, that's a good instrument, I like that!"
Tafuri: Well, it is kind of a weird-looking instrument.
Knoche: And the sound was good. I was just attracted to it . . . and to the music. I knew all the songs that they played at that time. At least, I could sing along. I never ended up playing any of [those songs] seriously, but I heard them a lot. Because, when I started playing, which was quite a bit later, my head was just somewhere else.
Tafuri: How young were you when you decided you wanted to play the clarinet?
Knoche: When I decided to play?
Tafuri: No, when you saw this instrument and thought "hey, I'd like to play it." How old do you think you were?
Knoche: I was fascinated from the first time I saw it, so that's kind of, you know, from when. . .
Tafuri: . . .you were a couple of years old, probably.
Knoche: And the drums, of course: clarinet and drums.
Tafuri: Oh yeah? You just dug hearing that or what them?
Knoche: Yeah, and just thinking I could have something I could just beat on and make noise, and actually it works in a band. That was great, too. So, I was really young there — like five or six.
Tafuri: So, did you actually start out on the clarinet?
Knoche: Yeah, I started out on the clarinet, and that was. . .
Tafuri: . . .like in elementary school, or something like that?
Knoche: No, no, not that early. I was like in eighth grade or something. So, really later, 'cause in Germany, the whole music system works differently. You don't really learn instruments in school, you have to take private lessons, and orchestras (in that sense, as it is in the States) don't exist. No bands. I mean, some schools may have that, but you just learn general music. So, I had to get my clarinet, and then I started, and then I got into playing blues "harp" really seriously.
Knoche: Yeah, you know I practiced like four or five hours a day, because I liked it so much.
Tafuri: Where did that come from?
Knoche: I listened to country blues.
Tafuri: Country blues in — where was this?
Knoche: In Delmenhorst. I mean, I bought all those records that they have at all these festivals in Germany, like the American folk blues festival and that kind of stuff. Unfortunately, it was at the same time when I got my clarinet, but I started practicing more and more on the harmonica.
Tafuri: Well, I guess it was a little easier to play the harmonica, I'm guessing.
Knoche: You bet. I mean, I loved the music, but I couldn't figure out how to play a little faster, so I couldn't play right away.
Tafuri: It's all I-IV-V or ii-IV-V, I mean . . . whatever.
Knoche: Just the technique of it. I wasn't even thinking of it theoretically.
Tafuri: Well, there's no embouchure. Anybody can play it; anybody can play harmonica as far as that goes.
Knoche: But I played clarinet, too. I mean, it was funny: I always wanted to play it, then I got it, and I started out very, very "lazily," let's say.
Tafuri: With the clarinet. . . You weren't really that serious.
Knoche: Well, seeing some of my students now and seeing how dedicated they are already and how much they understand that they want to practice — at even a much younger age. . . I just wanted to play. And I didn't really want to have a teacher. I just wanted to figure it out by myself.
Tafuri: That's what I wanted to ask you: You did have a teacher, right?
Knoche: For the clarinet, for a half-year.
Tafuri: And that was it?
Tafuri: I was thinking that if you have lessons — like with most instruments, they want you to learn classical music, and you didn't want to play classical.
Knoche: Exactly. That was exactly the thing. We did these little Mozart pieces. Seeing it from now, it was a great opportunity to learn the instrument and the music, but at that point . . . I wanted to play "In the Mood." You know what I mean?
Knoche: After a half year, I was like, 'Oh, I don't want to practice this stuff anymore.' I never practiced in the first place, but I had to go to the lessons. And it sounds like it was a big drag or I just was not doing it, buy I just figured, well. . .
Tafuri: Well, how old were you?
Knoche: What is it in eighth grade? How old are you? Like twelve or thirteen.
Tafuri: Yeah, maybe something like that. Well, there're a lot of things going on when you're twelve or thirteen, too. . .
Knoche: Sports. I liked the music and everything, and the jazz — I was drawn towards it — and the blues, but then I thought "How can I play country blues on my clarinet?" And I couldn't really make the connection, so, since playing the clarinet wasn't really very much what I liked, I started playing the "harp" more. . .
Tafuri: So, that was the extent of your lessons: a half year of lessons?
Knoche: A half year of clarinet.
Tafuri: And you were playing Mozart in a half year?
Knoche: Well, they were really simple, little pieces. I don't remember if it was music that he actually wrote. I don't remember exactly what it was. But, you see, what I did on the side was: in this music school where I was, they had a jazz band, so I went into that. Like an ensemble that moved towards "jazz," let's say — a little more than all the other ensembles. That's why I stayed in: I didn't take lessons anymore, but I stayed in those ensembles.
Tafuri: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Knoche: That was great. I wanted to play; I didn't really want to practice, I wanted to play.
Tafuri: So, you picked up reading the music and the fingerings and all that stuff pretty quickly?
Knoche: Pretty quick. But I learned [later] some things I did wrong that way. But it worked for what I needed it for.
Tafuri: Did you ever learn it the right way, then?
Knoche: Much later.
Knoche: Much, much later.
Tafuri: But that's hard, isn't it, 'cause then they have to tear you down, they have to bring you all the way down, and then you have to come all the way back up.
Knoche: A little later, when I actually picked up the saxophone and then I wanted to study in the big band, they put me next to the First Alto player who was getting ready to split. . .
Tafuri: Oh, "splitting" like in "leaving."
Knoche: Yeah. They told me I should look — not play — and just see how it looks on the paper.
Tafuri: Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
Knoche: Yeah, but he was playing pretty wrong. That was the problem.
Knoche: Then, when the second thing I learned was "wrong," I thought, 'Then that must be right, right?'
Tafuri: And you didn't have an instrument?
Knoche: No, I had a saxophone. They didn't want to have two First Alto players, but then they told me he was going to leave, so they said, "If you want to learn the music, just come to the rehearsals and read along with what he's doing." It was just funny, because I learned some things completely incorrectly which I thought were right.
Tafuri: And this was still in high school?
Knoche: Oh, yeah.
Tafuri: So, you still learned 'em wrong then?
Tafuri: When did you learn them right?
Knoche: In college. I mean, in college I really learned to read. The good thing was, I was able to figure out concert [key] charts already and B-flat charts on the alto saxophone already, because you had to go with whatever [music] people gave you there, but it was rather "slow," let's say.
Tafuri: Once you started playing alto, then, you pretty much didn't play the clarinet?
Knoche: Exactly. That was maybe two years after I got the clarinet. This friend of mine found a saxophone in his attic, and I said "Oh, really? Let me try it out." And he had his grandfather's really old, pre-Second World War instrument, and I bought it from him for DM 400. And that was it then; that's what I liked.
Tafuri: Do you still have it?
Knoche: Oh, yeah! It's in Germany. It still works; it's a great instrument, but it has a little more of a "traditional" sound. It's not as "aggressive" as I like. It's a Keilwerth. I mean, they're big now.
Tafuri: So, you played a lot, and you played in school, and you played in high school. When did you decide that's how you wanted to make your living?
Knoche: Oh, that was when I was 22.
Tafuri: What were you studying then, in the meantime?
Knoche: Well, you see, in Germany, the whole system's a little different. After thirteen grades, I was eighteen, so that was pretty early by German standards. Then, I either had to go into the army or, since I didn't want to go, I did civil service in a school for handicapped children, which took me two years, but you have to do it. And I enjoyed it a lot, but, by that time, I thought, 'OK, I'm going to become a teacher.' But it allowed me after school, since I was working only until three o'clock in the afternoon, so I had lots of time and, by then, I had lots of connections (or what I thought at the time) — lots of musicians in my town (basically there were a handful, but they were dedicated) — so, we rehearsed a lot. We played whatever we could come up with. Maybe we can get into that later.
Tafuri: People your age, though?
Knoche: Yeah. Then, after that was over, I was 21 or something like that, and I figured 'Well, I can take a year off, because' (since I had worked a year) I would get a year-long unemployment benefit already, I thought, 'OK, I'll try this one year to practice this whole year or, at least, try,' and figured. . . See, at this point, I figured 'I'm going to study it,' and. . .
Tafuri: . . .see if at the end of the year, you're still going to feel the same.
Knoche: But I didn't like any of the universities. You see, that's the hard part in Germany: it's not about money, it's just very competitive. Where I actually ended up studying, they took only two saxophone players.
Tafuri: Where was that?
Knoche: In Hannover. At that time, there were just five schools in Germany anyway for jazz, where you could study jazz, so it was very competitive, and I was kind of nervous, of course. But that was my plan: to practice for that year.
Tafuri: So, were you actually a performance major there, then, or how does that work?
Knoche: No, in Germany, at that time — now it's a little different there — there was just one university where you could study as a performance major, because they figured 'What do you do as a German jazz performance major at the end, what do you do with that degree?' It doesn't give you any jobs, basically, so. . .
Tafuri: Die Deutschen sind immer so praktisch.
Knoche: Ja. But that was good, so I had to study both performance and education.
Tafuri: So that's what you studied.
Knoche: Yeah, but, I mean, there was a lot of performance in there. But the degree was in education, so you could go on and teach.
Tafuri: What there "happening" music in Hannover? Did you have people coming through there? Was there some kind of musical scene in Hannover?
Knoche: Yeah, absolutely. It grew because, as I said, there were just five schools in all of Germany, so it drew a lot of young people who studied there.
Tafuri: No, but I meant outside of the school, like in the town. Were there clubs?
Knoche: There were, but it was very much connected with the school. There were some people who were outstanding who are still in the scene right now. Really outstanding musicians.
Tafuri: Like who?
Knoche: (?sp) Rudi (?sp) Mahal, a very great bass clarinet player. He really didn't live there, but he was there a lot . . . and a lot of Americans. I was really lucky, because when I was there, there were a couple of clubs that really pushed more "modern" jazz, and there were a lot of Americans there — a lot of them, really. Not so much right now anymore, but, at that time, I guess, it was economically a lot easier for Americans to make money. Of course, now you have that tax for 25% of what you make — and that didn't really exist [at that time] — and the Germany economy was stronger at that time, I guess. So, I saw a lot [of jazz]. That was '89 to '94, and I finished high school in '86, so I started two years after that. But, up to when I really decided I wanted to be a musician, you know, to try it, I didn't really practice. I never put that much effort into it. But, from then on...
Tafuri: Yeah, but, throughout the story, it sounds like there was a real impetus there, that there was a drive, if not a drive, then something drawing you to music.
Knoche: The music, yeah, the music. I mean, I love just the feeling of playing ... or listening, for that matter. Just to sit in a good concert is just...
Tafuri: Jazz, classical, es macht nichts?
Knoche: Jazz. But, by that time, really the more modern jazz, the avant garde edge.
Tafuri: Who were some of the people you were really turned on by?
Knoche: When I started playing saxophone, that was a funny thing. I liked listening as much to Peter Brötzmann or Coltrane as to Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges . . . at the same time! Or, John Zorn. You know, John Zorn and Tim Berne were really big at that time in Germany, so I liked that a lot. Then I had to figure out what to basically practice or what to come out with, because I was still completely new to the instrument, even though I had played maybe for three or four years already, but I was still pretty fresh. Like to come up with a plan, how to get that all together.
Tafuri: Well, you're on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Knoche: And the country blues, because I still loved that. And the Beatles. Let's say, it was all effecting me. But I was much more drawn to the modern. When it came to playing, I knew I wouldn't play in the Ben Webster style; I loved the music.
Tafuri: But you had that sensibility, then.
Knoche: Yes, but I always tried to look forward, I guess.
Tafuri: Well, one of the things that got me about the session, when you sent it to me, is (because, on Line Zero, it's all your own tunes) — is that there's a melodicism to not only the tunes, but your playing. It fits really well into this little moniker we use at OmniTone of "adventurous and listenable." Now, as you tell the story, I can hear how (even though you were drawn to the real modern stuff and contemporary stuff) the sensibility [of the earlier players] colors what you do. So, you don't sound like Brötzmann and you don't sound like Zorn and you don't sound like Tim Berne, you have someplace else in the middle. So, that's interesting, because it seems like listening on both ends like that forced you to have to find your own voice.
Knoche: Yeah, absolutely. And I had all these guys around me who would try to push me just with tips or hints of what not to do when I was really looking for how to practice.
Tafuri: Like what? Can you think of any?
Knoche: Well, like for a long time I was practicing things that I knew I would never really be able to play. Let's say I was playing the instrument [slowly] technically or melodically, but I could never play that thing any faster, but, for my ears, it would open up my ears.
Tafuri: You're saying you couldn't play it because technically you'd have a hard time getting it under your fingers.
Knoche: Yeah, if I'd really want to put it in the music at that moment — those kind of things —
Tafuri: But it still opens you up.
Knoche: That's exactly why I did it. Or like, for example, trying not to practice in a tonal context, but practice the same kind of things in a "non-tonal" context, thinking very chromatically. At that time, I thought "Oh, this is really interesting," right? And then, by now, I see it's better if you put it in context, putting it together with tonal; that's giving you a good mix.
Tafuri: Your music definitely comes through that way. What's the inspiration for your compositions, for you as a composer? In other words, are there composers you're impressed by, are there player-composers? Are your compositions natural extensions of your playing?
Knoche: I guess it's a lot of things. Since I listen so much to things, since I played with a lot of musicians. . . See, before I wrote most of those tunes, I had the opportunity in Germany to play with a lot of "world" musicians. Like, I've played with the throat-singers from Tuva.
Tafuri: Oh, cool.
Knoche: I've played with Mongolian singers, with Russian singers. I've played with, you know, Egyptian violin players and African drummers which, at that point, opened me up to more simpler thinking about melody. Not that that's true for the whole album, except for the melodic thinking. That inspired me a lot, before I wrote lots of these tunes . . . although all the things I had done before — I mentioned the Tuvans and Louis Sclavis from France — all those contexts I really liked.
Tafuri: In what situations where you playing with all these musicians?
Knoche: Well, they had these festivals in Hannover where they had world music — you know, groups from all over the world — and then they would put together festival bands which would be a mix out of these musicians plus some of the local "yokels" [laughs] which I lucky to be part of.
Tafuri: Well, that's cool.
Knoche: That's an experience, standing next to a Tuvan throat-singer, and he's just singing his heart out. You know, I'd never had those experiences ever before in my life. It's very impressive and very spiritually touching, too.
Tafuri: It's the "world" version of the "country blues" you heard earlier in your life.
Knoche: It is!
Tafuri: There's that same kind of, sort of raw, down-to-earth energy in a lot of what they do and, it's at the same time, quite miraculous, too.
Knoche: Yeah. For them it was just folk music, it's how they imitate nature. That's what they do. But I didn't even think that way. I mean, you stand there, and you can't believe what's going on. It's basically so simple, but so touching.
Tafuri: Touching, yes, but simple, hmm... It's pretty challenging though when you get into those compound meters and complex rhythms of some of that stuff. Sometimes when I'm listening to that music I try — just for the heck of it — to count it out and then ... I don't know.
Knoche: Well, see, that's the same with the music on Line Zero. I try to combine those elements. But it's not that it's "constructed" music. I come up with a melody — bass or drum riff — then I count it out. 'So this is 13/8.' It's not that I planned it to be that way, but it is that way, and then I see what I can put on there that maybe makes it sound a little more simple, like a simpler melody that lines up with it. Or I do the opposite, to make it still sound really "together" and composed, but abstract. I try to combine that all, I guess, with that band. And I have to say it is the first band that I ever had with a trumpet in it; I didn't really have the people in Germany around me.
Tafuri: "Yeah, where are those Dixieland guys sitting around now when I need to have a trumpet?" [Laughs.]
Knoche: [Laughs.] No, there are some good trumpet players, but I guess not in Hannover, where I was most of the time. You know, I don't want to go on about that [laughs again].
Tafuri: Trumpet and alto sound great together. [When] you think of all the great sessions back — you know, the bop sessions (Bird and Diz) and the post-bop sessions (Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan), that's just a great combination.
Knoche: I always wanted to do that, have a trumpet in the band, but I never got to do it until I met Russ and basically met the whole band.
Tafuri: So, you start with, you get a thematic idea — a theme in your head — and you hear that for an instrument and then you build around that?
Knoche: Parts of the music were composed already in Germany. Two and a half tunes were basically, in part, composed.
Tafuri: Like, for example...
Knoche: "Perzina," the second tune. Like a part of it, the 9/4, the main melody was composed, but then, when I came here, I composed a lot around it. Or "12-10." The core of the tune I wrote in '92 or something already. It was like twelve bars of something — an abstraction of a blues, I guess. Then we played it, and then I added a lot to it just to make it more interesting, so I came up with 50 extra bars around it. But, you know, as with the other tunes — to get back to your point — I really heard the instrumentation, I heard those musicians. I know Bob [Bowen] has a low C on his bass.
Tafuri: He's got "the pump."
Knoche: Yeah, he can go "down there." And I know Russ' [Johnson's] sound and how he mixes his abilities. And Danny [Weiss] can play basically anything I can think of.
Tafuri: You're writing more than "heads." I mean, these are arrangements, these are like small-group arrangements.
Knoche: Absolutely. I mean, some tunes are like five or six pages long. They might not sound like it, but they're very through-composed.
Tafuri: That's what I love about the music, it was another thing that really impressed me. See, you may not realize, but at OmniTone we get sometimes two, maybe sometimes three, submissions a day. And sometimes we listen but, more often than not, we don't; we don't have the time or the ears. But part of the reason why I listened to this one was because of Bob. Bob is on MOB [Trio], and Bob played in Cincinnati, where I'm from. I put it on — maybe he even brought it over and said, "Check this out" — and one of the things I was really impressed about — and I love this — it's my favorite thing in jazz: when you can't tell where the writing ends and the improvisation begins.
Knoche: [Chuckles.] Yeah, I love that. That's my point.
Tafuri: If I had to summarize what OmniTone's "adventurous and listenable" is about, that's what it is. And I think so many of our artists — and that's why I feel like this fits so well with what we're doing with OmniTone — about everyone on the label is a wonderful composer who knows how to create these "structures" that allows the musicians the flourish.
Knoche: That's exactly what I like about it. That's what I try to achieve: that the line is not that clear, to have as much structure in the improvisation as you have in the composed parts and have as much freedom in the composed parts as you have in the improvisation, and make it all as colorful as possible. With that instrumentation, those four guys with no harmony instrument, I try to create as much as I can with my three instruments and with Russ playing a lot of different sounds on his trumpet . . . plus with Bob and Danny creating a whole world of their own.
Tafuri: Was it a conscious decision to not have a piano?
Knoche: Yes, absolutely.
Tafuri: It wasn't just you guys starting to play together. I mean, you might have even, at some point, had a piano.
Knoche: Yes, this was very conscious; I wanted it to be like that. See, what happened is a played gig with Russ before in January '99, I guess. When we did the record, it was really the second gig (or whatever you want to call it), so it was really fresh. I met him in school, but the first gig we had was a couple of months before. I love how the blend works, because I never had the opportunity to play with a trumpet player that closely. It felt like completely — no matter what I play — it works out.
Tafuri: Well, Russ is a helluvah player. He's got a beautiful sound, and he's really responsive.
Knoche: So, that gig was without any harmony.
Tafuri: It was just the two of you?
Knoche: Well, with bass and drums. But then I knew that's basically the sounded I wanted. I heard for myself the possibilities that were in there, 'cause I knew he was very flexible. It worked out so good, I felt so comfortable playing, that I knew that was the band ... right then and there. Of course, I had listened to lots of music before that had exactly that instrumentation or less, since I'm not just playing alto. I listened to Ornette, you know...
Tafuri: And, right there, that's the band. That's the same instrumentation.
Knoche: Or the Braxton things from the '70s with Kenny Wheeler, I mean, either, although I didn't think of that at all at the time. It's more the sound. I heard the sound I needed.
Tafuri: You arrived at the same conclusion by a different
method. It gave you the kind of balance you needed.
Tafuri: I love — and, in fact, you know, we used it on the German sampler — the title track. It was hard to pick what to use from the album on the sampler, but I used that track because I love Russ' solo on that. I mean, talk about your roots, listening to classic jazz and Dixieland, it really gives you kind of a little history of the trumpet in that one tune.
Tafuri: Where did "Line Zero" come from?
Knoche: The tune itself? The simple, basic beginning of the piece — that's what I had. It was just a basic bass pattern: 12/8, divided into 5[/8] and 7[/8]. That's all there was at the beginning. And then we would join the bass somehow, and the way we broke it up was that it's Russ and I playing melody and then he's [Bob's] playing the bass pattern then we play part of the melody and he's playing the bass pattern — going back and forth, basically, to start the tune, because I didn't want to — you know, ostenati patterns are nice, but I didn't want to — overdo it. If you would have all the time under the melody playing along, it would get kind of boring, so we kind of divided that up between us. That just led to all the other parts. One part would be in 12, and then there's a union of bass, drums, and bass clarinet which deals with the same — see, 5/8 or 7/8 is always either 2[/8] and 3/8 or 2[/8] and 2[/8] and 3/8, so then the next part was more-or-less in 3/8, but broken up sometimes with, like, 5/8 in there. I just tried to figure out something that would abstract what came before. I was playing it to myself, and I came up with this unison part, leading into a more-or-less free trumpet solo, then going into the whole second part of the piece.
Tafuri: Which then changes instruments...
Knoche: I change instruments, and it stays in 9/8 the whole time. Basically one rhythm. I don't know if I should really get into the theory of it too much here. There's some implied harmony, because the bass line has minor chords going up in major thirds. So, that's what it is.
Tafuri: Hmm, interesting.
Knoche: Yeah, you might not hear it, but at least we know what it is. It's the melody — that's the important parts. The composed things we divided out, but that is under the solo, too. And it changes the whole "vibe" of the tune, because it gets more aggressive.
Tafuri: I meant to ask you this earlier: How did you get back to the clarinet's lower cousin? We talked about you moving from clarinet — about two years later — to alto, and then playing alto, alto, alto, but when did the bass clarinet come into the picture?
Knoche: See, I actually got my first really good soprano before I got my first really good alto. The two went along really well; I just went along with the sound. And then I listened to people playing live on bass clarinet and loved it really from the first second I heard it. And it took me actually a while to start, because my first bass clarinet was not a very good instrument. So, I figured it's just me who can't play it.
Tafuri: And they're expensive instruments, aren't the?
Knoche: Yeah, they are. So, it took me a while to really pick it up. But it was basically I was just inspired by what I was hearing.
Tafuri: What about it did you like? What really gotcha?
Knoche: It's the sound, the sound, definitely the sound ... and the flexibility. When you see someone who can play as low as a baritone saxophone and as high as a soprano, it makes you think, 'Wow! There're a lot of possibilities!'
Tafuri: It's like with great bass players, it's the same thing. They can play in about any octave.
Knoche: I didn't think of it that consciously, I just liked it, I just really liked it. The mysterious sound behind it when you play the low notes.
Tafuri: It's a mysterious-looking instrument.
Knoche: Yeah, that Eric Dolphy cover — whatever, I think it's Out There — it's this painting where the bass clarinet is floating around. It's funny, I liked it.
Tafuri: And when was this? This was in college when you started playing it?
Knoche: Yeah, late in college time.
Tafuri: Which do you like playing better, the alto or the bass clarinet? (You don't have to answer the question, if you don't want to.)
Knoche: I like them all the same. I think, I feel, I play differently on each instrument — I hope I do — 'cause I hear them differently. Between the soprano and alto, I really play differently and, I mean, the bass clarinet — the instrument itself — makes you play differently with the range and the sound.
Tafuri: That's really interesting, because, what I'm hearing from you — everything you've been talking about — how you come to the music is from a very "organic" place. You come to it more from (it seems like) an experiential place rather than from a theoretical place. You start with the experience and then add in as much of the theory as you need to help shape the concept, rather than the other way around.
Tafuri: It's interesting, because maybe growing up hearing this "Dixieland" and then country blues (which is really kind of "untrained" music) and then world music (as we were saying) and even listening to you talk about writing "Line Zero" (when you said you played the line, you were actually fingering in the air when you said that) — that's where it comes from. And I think it really comes through in your music. One of the tunes I really dig is the "The Few."
Knoche: See, with "The Few," that was the same thing. I played it on bass clarinet — and maybe that the other thing, too, that certain instruments maybe lead to a certain way of composing. If I practice and play it on the bass clarinet, I definitely come up with a different idea then playing it on the alto at the same moment. "The Few" is a bass clarinet piece. It's a typical Habanera rhythm, but I just had this pattern that I was playing around with. Then it was all figured out in five minutes, like with the chords that it implies. So, I recorded that and played around with the bass clarinet over it and came up with the melody. It's a pretty simple tune. Basically that one and "The Dazzle" are the only ones where you really have a form that you play, then for the solo it's playing on the form. Kind of the more traditional way.
Tafuri: Like chord changes.
Knoche: Like chord changes, yeah, but the best thing about this is that you might not even know that, because it sounds more open when you don't have the harmony instrument, although the bass line is pretty strong in both.
Tafuri: Do you actually give chord changes in your music?
Knoche: Well, those two tunes have chord changes, but I really wanted the bass line for the solos. I write the bass lines out in those cases. And the chord changes I just put in if I might play with another group that has a harmony player, but, even then, I would say that they should stick more with the bass line.
Tafuri: So, it's more ... harmolodic. It's more like that growing-out-of-the-melody, growing-out-of-the-experience-of-playing-the-tune playing.
Knoche: So many melodies imply so many harmonies or rhythms, or harmony implies melody — you just have to find it, I guess. Yeah, whatever comes first, that's what I try to work with.
Tafuri: Is "Perzina" a person or a place?
Knoche: No, it's actually the brand name of the piano of the roommate I had in Hannover.
Tafuri: [Laughs heartily.]
Knoche: You know, I just tried to come up with a name.
Tafuri: I was trying to figure out what that was, because it's kind of a weird name. Why did you name the piece that?
Knoche: I don't know. Actually, it is not related at all to the piece itself.
Knoche: I didn't even write the piece on the piano. It's an alto piece.
Tafuri: You're standing there starin' at the piano.
Knoche: Yeah, I had to find a name. This one was really just that I had to find a name. And that was it. "Perzina" sounded ambiguous, right, you don't really know what it is. And I guess the piano's still in the same place now.
Tafuri: "Key of Five."
Knoche: "Key of Five." That's a pretty free piece. It has different parts, like the other pieces. What I did here was I composed them then, for the soli or for the sections, I numbered them and would throw the numbers in the air. It would either play like that or, when it goes back to the melody, we would never be in the same place. I'd just show [my fingers] in the air.
Tafuri: It was like a game, then, almost ... or you were putting the indeterminacy into the whole thing.
Knoche: Yeah, and I'm the one at the end who has to determine how we have to go back by throwing in the right numbers.
Tafuri: So, how many parts are there to it? There're five parts to it?
Knoche: Basically, yeah, and it has parts like where everybody plays together, there are duos in there or just drum and bass, some unison, some parts where (let's say) the horns play slower than the rhythm section, deliberately playing a different tempo — things like that.
Tafuri: A lot of instructions, basically.
Knoche: Yeah, but the parts are very short, and they're very easy to play. This is rather a simple piece.
Tafuri: It doesn't sound simple.
Knoche: Well, if you see it on the paper...
Tafuri: We'll put it up on the website so people can check it
out for themselves. It'll be fun to hear the music and then see
where it comes from.
Knoche: "Über." So, the title says everything, I guess, right?
Tafuri: [Laughs.] At least it isn't "Über Alles."
Knoche: Yeah, I know, that's what the guys suggested it should be, but I didn't really want to do that. That's a piece that came, well, I woke up at night, and I had the whole piece in my head all of a sudden. The structure of it. None of the notes, but the whole structure: how it would start, where it would lead into.
Tafuri: That's cool.
Knoche: So, I woke up, I wrote it down (the structure), fell back to sleep, then, in the morning, I looked at the structure and said "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and then I started putting notes where my ideas were at night. It all has to do with augmented — "über" means — well, it can mean "over," but in music it means "augmented."
Knoche: So this piece, talking harmonically, is just one big piece based on augmented scales and major-7ths. I mean, they all over the place: the bass line, the intro.
Tafuri: A lot of suspension out there.
Knoche: You know, it was just fun. We played it with the combo at the Manhattan School [of Music]. I wrote it for the combo first.
Tafuri: Small group?
Knoche: Actually, Dan was in there, Russ was in there, and it was an eight-piece band.
Tafuri: Where did "The Dazzle," that title come from?
Knoche: I always though that The Dazzle was that guy from Disney, you know, that guy — I wrote it for Duffy Duck.
Tafuri: Daffy Duck.
Knoche: Daffy Duck. The piece reminded me of him. And "The Dazzle" —
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Well, I don't think of Donald Duck —
Knoche: Daffy Duck —
Tafuri: Daffy Duck as being particularly dazzling.
Knoche: Well, you gotta understand, this is the only really-complete tune I wrote in Germany and back then I didn't exactly know what "dazzle" means or "dazzling." You understand? Just the word itself. I liked the word.
Tafuri: You liked the word. You liked the sound of the word.
Knoche: I liked the word. Exactly.
Tafuri: It's "onomatopoetic" — you know the word? It means a word that sounds like what it describes, like "pop" or "bang." It's a title that sounds like the piece.
Knoche: That's what I thought.
Tafuri: 'Cause when I first listened to the record, I probably listened to it the first time without even looking at the titles — although I usually do. If I really start listening, I like to have the CD next to me, because I'm one of these people who believes there is some significance to the titles, that there is a reason for naming something. Some of the guys, like Braxton or Zorn, just say "Track 1," "Track 2," or "1," "2," "3," "4" or whatever —
Knoche: Although Braxton has this whole thing about his pictures.
Tafuri: Oh, yeah. Years ago, when I was doing radio, I played a short Braxton piece, and I announced "Now, let me give you a title; everybody get out a piece of paper and draw a square on it..."
Tafuri: You know, it's like that party game, the game they play
at kids' parties. (I don't know if they do that in
Germany.) But they take a piece of paper and draw a picture, then
they hand it to the next person and that person has to describe it to
the rest of the group to draw sight unseen. Then you see what
everybody ends up with. It's pretty wild.
Knoche: Oh, you did?
Tafuri: Yeah, it was really weird, because that was before I looked at the title. Then I thought it was kind of interesting that mock cover art you gave me had orange in it. I'm one of those people — I don't think I have synesthesia, like Messiaen did — but I definitely hear colors. I hear green, and I hear orange, and I hear red and blue and green. Mingus talked about that a lot, and I think that's a thing that's missing in music — that people don't play "with colors" any more. It's all technique and groove and patterns. So, I'm curious — and I love the title, "The Orange Stream."
Knoche: See, there's this city in the south of France, Orange, that's the splitting point where if you want to go to Italy, you go east, and if you want to go to Spain, you go west, because that's the point where the road, the Autoroute del Sole, goes to the south. So, I hitchhiked a lot through Europe, and this was the point at which you'd always get stuck, like, forever, because nobody would pick you up. For some reason, that happened to me quite a lot there.
Tafuri: Because they were going the way you didn't want to go?
Knoche: Either that or, for some reason, they didn't want to pick anyone up. I don't know. I couldn't figure out why. But, anyway, there's this particular filling station, but nobody would pick you up. I don't know why. But it's beautiful there. Especially if it was the end of the day and you'd just go into the countryside and go to sleep somewhere or whatever. It was always beautiful. So, there was this one river, this stream, and we ended up going there several times, just because we wouldn't get picked up.
Tafuri: There, I guess, you didn't care if you didn't get picked up. You'd just hang out there a little bit.
Knoche: Yeah, there was just this peaceful vibe to it. See, I had the music first, and then I picked the title. But it kind of related to that. And "Orange" meant in both senses: like for the city and the color. But, for the music, it had this kind of orange —
Tafuri: It does!
Knoche: This warm tune.
Tafuri: It does have an orange vaunce.
Knoche: Once we played it, yes. Maybe it's set up musically by the unisons or the harmonies, some of the being in the same register. Just the sound gives something. It's a very warm fifth. You know, a fifth can sound pretty aggressive, but with the sound of the bass clarinet, it sounds very warm to me.
Tafuri: It's a fifth within the octave?
Knoche: Yeah, as far as I remember, it is.
Tafuri: Down in that register, that's probably about as close an interval as you want to get.
Knoche: Yeah. Exactly. And then the melody on it is kind of a folksongy melody. I mean, I came up with it without thinking of southern France, but it kind of fits. It has a little of that folk quality to it.
Tafuri: With it, you could go to Italy or you could go to Spain.
Tafuri: Speaking of going and coming, why did you come over here to the States?
Knoche: I was here as a child in Canada twice and once in the States with my parents just traveling around, so I was over here, but then never again. And, of course, New York being New York and the center of the whole jazz world, basically, always attracted me. I tried to figure out how I was going to do that. I thought, 'If I go over, I don't want to go over for just a month and see a couple of concerts then go back. I want to go.' But financially how would that be possible? So, what I did was that there's this kind of scholarship foundation in Germany, the German Academic Exchange Service, which offers programs (once you're done studying) if you want to extend your studies abroad. So, I applied there and they would pay for it. I applied to go to New York to basically be here, but, of course, I'd have to study again which, by that point, I was three years out of studying. And I wasn't sure I wanted to do that, just to go to the States. But then I got it, obviously, and I picked the Manhattan School, first because it's in New York, but also because a friend told me you can do your master's degree there, so, "if you reapplied, you might get the second year funded, too." At that time, the other schools in New York didn't have a master's [program]. Then I was here. Then I applied again and got the second year funded ... and I got my master's all on German taxpayers' money. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: Why not? You pay enough taxes there...
Knoche: Yeah, I liked it here. I came over. I had lots to do in Germany but, at that point, I thought, 'Wow, that opportunity's so big, I would be really dumb not to try it. I could always go back. You know, I could just say I wanna go back.' I was nearly 30 at that point and I left a lot of friends and a lot of social life and, musically, it was good, but I always thought it would be more challenging here, or there would be more opportunities here.
Tafuri: Both, probably. It is more challenging, and there are more opportunities.
Knoche: I was here for a week, and I was already playing with a Flamenco guitar player in Brooklyn.
Tafuri: What instrument where you playing?
Knoche: Soprano. And a great cajon player. It went so fast. The second weekend I was already touring Massachusetts and upstate New York with a kind of rock band.
Knoche: Yeah, so it was pretty fast. It was pretty exciting.
Tafuri: You got hooked up in a hurry, then.
Knoche: It was different things, you know, really different musics.
Tafuri: And you go back, anyway.
Knoche: I go back and forth. We tour with the band.