Since the mid-nineties, composer/guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante has been releasing some of the most boldly unclassifiable and uncompromising music that spans an unbelievably wide range of sounds. Though having studied modern composition in college, Diaz-Infante’s work, particularly in his various collaborations, often taps into the same no-mind realm of free jazz and modern noise. Much of this has come out on his own Pax Recordings, a label “dedicated to the documentation, perservation, and contagion of music from the margins of our culture and psyches”. Ernesto provided some thoughtful responses to our questions about his music and his label.
My parents were active Catholic church goers and I got recruited to perform in Mexican church groups in the Salinas Valley when I was twelve. I had started to play the organ at seven. As a kid I spent a lot of time jamming instrumentals and songs on a jerry-rigged 4-track (I took my solo project Nicté-Há quite seriously! I have a box of cassette tapes from that period that give me a good laugh). I bought my first acoustic guitar when I was twelve in Mexico. I wanted to be Carlos Santana (he's from the same town in Mexico my father was) and started teaching myself to play.
At thirteen, my parents allowed me to drop out of high school and play in what was a popular Mexican band at the time, Cielo Azul. I got to see the whole lifestyle of being a musician! The good, the bad, and the ugly! It ended up being a short stint (they fed me cocaine) and my mom came and rescued me.
So I went back to high school and turned into a band geek -- playing mallet percussion in marching and concert bands, and piano in jazz band. Not nearly as exciting, but a tad healthier! Later at Hartnell Community College, I studied music theory with Dr. Carl Christensen. He gave me a foundation. And later, the big day occurred when I met Los Lobos at a MEChA conference in Los Angeles. Louie Pérez and David Hidalgo were there saying "Follow your dreams . . ." Oh, wow . . .
It wasn't until university that I was exposed to more hardcore exploratory music. I studied music composition with Jeremy Haladyna and Margaret Mayer as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara at the College of Creative Studies. I have never been that comfortable socially, so I ended up spending most of my time in the music library looking through scores and listening to recordings of 20th Century music. Ives, Varése, Cage, Ligeti along with the electronic music recordings of Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and Stockhausen. A whole language of music opened, and then I started taking courses in orchestration, counterpoint, music history, and computer music.
I performed in the UCSB Gamelan Ensemble, as well as drummed in the Middle East Ensemble. I sang in the choir. Some time during this music education, Margaret Mayer advocated for me to go to CalArts. It was quite scary amassing a huge debt in order to gain this arts education. It still is.
My mentor at CalArts, Stephen L. Mosko (who turned me on to Morton Feldman), suggested I study with Leo because of our similar backgrounds. Indeed, he turned out to be a huge inspiration. He gave me the go-ahead, the complete permission, to think about music creatively-- personal, unique, varied, reflective. I had never seen anyone create their own way of notating music and I thought that was great. We would compare scores. He'd show me his "Ankhrasmation' notation system, and I learned about "structured improvisation" which has been the cornerstone of my music.
I still find Leo inspiring and continue to learn from his great recordings that have come out in the recent years.
For s/t, I brought in a bunch of instruments to record at Scott Looney's studio. I wanted to create a music journal. Something quite personal and that I couldn't do if collaborating with other musicians. I was going through a Joseph Beuys obsession. First, I mapped it out-- from the choice of instruments and what I would do with them during thirty intervals. I wanted to work with the sound of each of these eclectic instruments (from accordion to a zither rod) and utilize their sonic capabilities to the fullest-- a big canvas of sounds, fragments of instrumentals, art songs, field recordings and noise. I really could hear the composition in my head beforehand. I close mic-ed on the sound of each instrument. I also wanted to use my voice for the first time in awhile and create derivative folk-art songs. Moody and disturbed (like me!). I used my poetry and reappropriated some Prince and Dylan. Later on, I used overdubs to add more texture. These included samples from the recording of Cielo Azul (that first band I was in), my old high school jazz band, and an old Armando Manzanero record. The field recordings were done at the time of the recording in West Oakland, just outside the studio (stuck a mic outside the window) and around my neighborhood in San Francisco. As for the titles, I did Burroughs' cut-up method. So, huh! Part method and part madness!
I am drawn to structured improvisation but purely improvised music certainly has its' addictive appeal for me. It's a matter of finding oneself and finding the moment. I can't fake it. I have to go there and be there and stay there and it can be quite transcendental and joyous. So much of life isn't free and spontaneous. The necessities of life can be a drag but there is some salvation in music. I love the freedom from scores and notated music-- the left brain. These moments of "El Duende" where the art is speaking for itself through you, reassuring you. It's what keeps me going. I do see composing and playing improvised music as quite similar to abstract painting where there's a freedom from the oppressiveness of Reality. And in this case, that would be harmonic progressions, melodies, set rhythms, emotional/sultry lyrics, and so forth. It's like floating and dancing in your own personal logic. . . a way of playing with sounds, creating a flow, conjuring spirits. . .intuitively shaping pieces, patterns, lines, gestures, brushstrokes, sequences . . . It's a chance to venture out of the shared reality and invite others to join you there. How nice . . .
“Our Faceless Empire”:
Ernesto and Manuel were on the West Coast for the Seattle Improvised Music Festival and were passing through San Francisco. They were curious to play with Gino and myself, and we decided to record it. Once again, we went over to Scott Looney's. We gathered a couple hours of free improvisations that Gino later edited and mastered. Beforehand, I studied and appreciated everybody's playing style and approach to free improvisation. I decided to do a new tuning for my mantra-esque freestyle that I have been developing over the last few years. It was a great session.
“As Is Stated . . . Before Known” (w/ Chris Forsyth):
Chris and I travelled together and had a lot of long conversations about new ways of making guitar music. John Fahey to the Blues. These conversations seeped into our sessions and we collaborated on four CDs. "As is Stated . . . Before Known" is the culminating CD that we put out together. It was also inspired by some of the musicians we met up with in Berlin and the lowercase movement. This was recorded right after the Improvised and Otherwise Festival in Brooklyn. It was recorded Live, two mics, no overdubs. This was the inception of my experimentation with hypnotic, minimalist strumming and fingerpicking. I used improvised microtonal tunings that sounded interesting to me.
“All the States Between” (w/ Matt Hannafin):
This was a mail project. Along the way, I had done a lot of these types of projects with Rotcod Zzaj, Bret Hart, Mark Flake and others. It's a way of collaborating when there's no other way of collaborating-- a way of transcending geography. In this case, I recorded material over withdrawn cassette tapes from the library and then mailed them to Matt. He added percussion which gave the sound the contrast. A lot of my contribution to this recording is the television screen closely mic-ed and a broken CD player. I recorded everything hot but without distortion. I aimed for a primitive, raw sound and got these wild and otherwordly sounds. I spooked myself! It felt like a Poltergeist, like the television coming alive. There was suddenly so much detail.
“Reverberations From Spring Past” (w/ Robert Montoya, Marcos Fernandes, and Rent Romus):
This group came together to perform at the Spring Reverb Festival in San Diego. Before that, I had collaborated and performed with saxophonist Rent Romus in The Abstractions. After we played at the festival, percussionist Marcos Fernandes, Rent and I went into a studio and recorded. Later, Robert Montoya added electronics. The session went smoothly. We just rolled tape. It was comfortable. They seemed to appreciate my mantra guitar strumming which I appreciated. It was something I was newly experimenting with and is not necessarily easy for some musicians to improvise with . . .
Initially, I sent out some of my early work to different labels and while I got some encouraging feedback from some individuals, overall I didn't like how the whole process made me feel-- like a powerless beggar asking for approval or something of the sort. It just so happened that the whole internet was taking off as I graduated from CalArts. So I thought, "What the hell . . . I have time and I have energy." (Two things I feel short of now!) As crazy and narcissistic as it sounds, I was interested in making music that I wanted to listen to and I was interested in documenting it, the way others write in journals. I had no illusion my work had commercial appeal-- not even in some hip, offbeat way. Truthfully, there's not really so many options for this type of music to exist in the world. But with my whole heart I believe it should exist. The otherwise mind-numbing implications of sound hegemony is something that might not be of concern to a lot of people. Or they don't think it is a concern . . . but for those who crave sound freedom, the implications are obvious. Along the way, I reached out to those people or they reached out to me and Pax burgeoned into what it is. Whatever it is. This of course isn't something I would choose in my right mind. It's lovely that there are others like yourself that are supporting it. I'm thankful.
By "sound hegemony" I am referring to the idea that our sonic landscapes are being controlled by commercial dominant forces (like everything else). The implications are more homogeneity. It's hard for music to exist, or to justify its' existence, if it doesn't make money. With avant-garde music, there's nothing really big to sell so it can feel like one crazy ass thing to pursue and take yourself seriously in. A lot of forces can repeatedly make me ask myself, "What the fuck am I doing this for? It's absolutely insane." Yet, I KNOW music and soundscapes have the potential to tap all sorts of emotional, psychological, spiritual, psychic, varied, quirky, personal, and in-between states of consciousness that exist. And should exist, but have to struggle to exist because if something doesn't serve a commercial use we can fail to see its' value. So if the only music that has a right to exist are the ones that make money, then that's a drag. Depressing. Not all that dissimilar to other hegemonies that create mind control. For instance, the only reason marijuana might finally be legalized is because the California economy has bottomed out. Suddenly, California sees marijuana's commercial potential. Hallelujah! Now they'll give us back our freedom! And that's perhaps the only silver lining to the economic chaos here--where we can't pay public school teachers and librarians without furloughs.
I've been collaborating with cellist Helena Espvall the last couple of times she's visited San Francisco and I've been excited about our recordings. So that may be a release some time in the future. Guitarist Philip Gayle has approached me about releasing a wild out-there (even for me) recording session that we did together with violist Barbara Rose Lange and vocalist Ben Lind in Houston in 2000. It's called "Rubble at Lackey Bridge." Percussionist Jeff Arnal and I collaborated on a 7'' called "Brooklyn Mantra" on Generate Records. I'd like to do a follow-up recording and keep developing our duo. I'm doing a new solo bajo sexto piece for Mandorla Label's Autumn Net-Collection 2010. I eventually would like to release a CD of my solo mantra strumming, "Civilian Life." I've been thinking of reissuing the recording "2 Join Occult," the Neshama Alma Band with Rotcod Zzaj from a few years back. I'm in the midst of doing a mail project with Turkish guitarist Umut Çağlar and some other musicians. Guitarists Manuel Mota and Sabrina Siegel and I have discussed doing mail projects, too. Finally, I have been working on music for my partner Marjorie Sturm's documentary film The Exorcism of JT LeRoy. It's been a creepy topic . . . creepier and creepier . . . dark material mirroring the dark opportunistic greedy film industry . . . not a fun ride. Anyways, I've been putting together music for that. . . . so there's a lot in the works. I guess I'll see what floats to the top.
Next year, if all the logistics fall into place, I plan to perform at the Free Improvisation and Experimental Music Festival Cha' ak' ab Paaxil. It's held in the city of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Ideally, I'll go with the Neshama Alma Band (that's with Marjorie doing a video visual component and sometimes flute and lyrics). We last performed at the Bang on a Can Marathon at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. It felt great! We were hoping to perform more, get to travel, live a non-civilian life. Hah! But not much has happened since . . . a sign of our times? . . . our fate? I'd love to get back to Europe! . . . it felt amazing performing at the Pintores de Aztlán show in Madrid. I got a taste of what it is like to live in a culture where the banks are socialized and sustain the arts! That's even hard to wrap your head around as an American. I've never been to South America. I wonder what's going on there as far as experimental musicians. What's their scene like? Perhaps Portugal ? Play some more with Ernesto Rodrigues and Manuel Mota. Check out beautiful Lisbon. I'd like to curate another SoundShift music festival like I did with some others in Big Sur. But for now, I'm practicing solo, doing live performances with my bajo sexto guitar in the evenings for my family. It's the soundtrack that my children are screaming, laughing, dancing, and watching cartoons over. I can't say it is "a captive audience" except for the fact that they are captive with me!
-- David Perron (8 September, 2010)