Articulating Ideas With Music

Playing the guitar is a healthier form of self-expression than punching somebody in the face.
  • Transcript


Question: Describe a little about what music means to you. 

Bill Frisell: It’s a world where anything is possible and just whatever is in your imagination can happen and so... I mean, there’s ways of expressing. I think it’s a healthier way of getting things out rather than punching somebody in the face, or something. I can play it on my guitar and it doesn’t hurt anybody. You can say what you need to say and I can see nothing but good comes from music. For me it’s just been a way. Like now, as I’m struggling to find words to express myself. When I play music I feel like that’s where my real voice is, or that’s where I really say something more than with words. I mean, words are cool too, but I’m not that good with them. 

Question: How do you use silence in your music? 

Bill Frisell: I think there’s a natural way I have of speaking. I hesitate and I think it takes me a while to get the thoughts formed in my mind and to get them to come out. And the same thing happens when I’m playing music. I’m thinking and I’ll hesitate, so there’s a natural rhythm that I have that happens when I play. But then also, the silence is as important. There’s dark and light and you can’t see one or the other if you know they cancel each other out, so I mean... if there’s sound, there has to be no sound to go with it before it will mean anything. 

Question: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? 

Bill Frisell: I guess I don’t really think so much about what it is called, although it’s just music, or but there was a time when I shied away from calling myself a jazz musician, or maybe it was because I don’t like to be boxed in, somehow. When I started to find out about jazz music, that was a place where anything was possible. The people that I listened to... when I started to hear Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, there was something that those guys were doing that it seemed to include – it wasn’t exclusive. I don’t think they were thinking about the name. You know, Duke Ellington. There was something in their music that it wasn’t exclusive, it included everything that they knew, all of their experience and in that way I still think of myself as a jazz... It’s that I take what I know and where I’ve been and just try to make something out of it and that’s what I think Jazz to me means. So, I don’t mind being called a jazz musician. 

Question: How much of your music improvised versus composed? 

Bill Frisell: I’m not sure it's improvisation and composition. It’s harder to separate the two. Sometimes I used to say that when I would write music, it’s sort of a slowed down version of when I improvise or something. You have more time to be critical or block yourself. And when you’re improvising, you just have to deal with the moment, but I think the two things are getting closer together where when I’m writing music on paper, I’m able to maybe not judge it so much in the moment and just let it come out. And then at the same time when I am improvising spontaneously I’m getting closer to having it be maybe the structure of it be more solid or something. I don’t know. 

I mean, even if I play the same notes, there are so many things that are happening with the people I’m with... playing and the sound in the room and the audience and the temperature and whatever other noises that are going on, or what happened that day or there’s no way you can play the same thing twice, even if you’re trying to. I mean, I’m trying to actually not play it the same way twice I guess. But, so I mean in that way, even playing in a set piece for me, it doesn’t feel that much different from something that’s improvised. 

Question: What is your method of composing? 

Bill Frisell: It used to be it seemed like it would be easier for me to do it when I was traveling, or anywhere I would just write stuff down. But now I need more solitary, concentrated time and I’ll write a lot. I actually had a little bit of time off recently where I wrote music every day. I didn’t have any deadline or it wasn’t for any other reason other than just doing it. And then I was able to get into a real rhythm... It’s almost like an, I don’t know what. See, for me it works best if I don’t judge what I’m doing as I’m doing it. Every time I start to think about what it actually is, then I become too critical and it just stops the process. I get into the energy of it and the stuff just comes out and pages and pages of this stuff. I filled up a few notebooks with music over a few weeks recently. Then I go back and I start looking at it more critically and sometimes there’s fully formed things there or there’s just germs of things that can become something bigger. I’ve been just so lucky or so fortunate with the people that I play with over the last, I don’t know, well since I started trying to do my own music. I feel really lucky that I’ve been around people who have backed up or encouraged me, and so much of what I write, so much of it comes from the people I’m with. When I bring them a melody and they put stuff into it that I could never... You can’t really write it down. 

So with the different groups I have, I usually present them with some kind of structure, like maybe it’s just one melody or maybe it’s like more fully formed four-part thing, or something. But there’s a point where I just leave it up to them to do with it what they want. And that’s really exciting for me. It’s not just like writing music and bringing it to some anonymous people and have them play exactly what’s there. There’s more going on than that. 

Question: How does your interest in electronics influence your music? 

Bill Frisell: When I started listening to Miles Davis playing the trumpet, or Bill Evans playing the piano, I’d hear the piano and I’d think, "Oh they can play notes in one hand and the notes just ring out and then they can play other notes," and so that led me to get a delay pedal so I could play something and then the notes would keep going and then I could play some other stuff. I mean that came really from thinking about piano. Or, even a distortion. I remember I was hearing Miles Davis playing a trumpet, and then I heard Carlos Santana playing the guitar and... he was pushing the amp way past what was the normal. I mean he was really getting this distorted long... Or Jimi Hendrix did that. But then I started to hear, "Wait a minute, that’s kind of like the trumpet," so then I got a distortion thing. 

So I mean, it kind of came almost more from trying to mimic these other instruments than... although I did, you know, of course I listened to Jimi Hendrix and I listened to Santana too. But a lot of that stuff, it’s just something I’m trying to realize that I’m hearing in my head. 

Recorded on May 5, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown